By David Mermelstein
The warm-hearted Spaniard has become America’s favorite guest conductor. In constant demand from Boston to L.A., he also holds down a full-time post at the Dresden Philharmonic.
When a back ailment forced James Levine to withdraw from conducting Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah with the Boston Symphony Orchestra last season, the ensemble’s management knew exactly whom to call: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. The 77-year-old Spaniard has in recent years become a regular, and welcome, visitor to many of this country’s best orchestras. Moreover, his much-admired recording of Elijah ensured that Boston audiences would be treated to a performance on the highest level.
Veteran music lovers will recognize his presence as something of a second coming, for Frühbeck made his American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra on Valentine’s Day 1969. Appearances with the orchestras of Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Boston soon followed. But his broader American profile declined in the 1980s when he began an eight-year stint in Washington, D.C., as principal guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. Then, in the early 1990s, he accepted posts with the Vienna Symphony (1991), the Deutsche Oper Berlin (1992), and the Berlin Radio Symphony (1994), which largely prevented visits to the States beyond tours with those ensembles. Since about 2000—despite being principal conductor of both Italy’s RAI National Symphony Orchestra from 2001 through 2007 and the Dresden Philharmonic since 2004—Frühbeck has been a far more frequent visitor to these shores, moving beyond the due-respect phase and becoming an elder statesman to a number of American orchestras, particularly Boston and Philadelphia.
Frühbeck lauds what he calls the “professionalism” of American orchestras, adding that only British bands rival them. “In Germany you have the Berlin Philharmonic, of course, but in France, at the Orchestre de Paris, the approach to music is different,” he said over lunch in Los Angeles last summer. “And thank God, because that way not everything is the same.” The conductor was in Los Angeles to lead the Philharmonic in programs of French and German warhorses at the Hollywood Bowl. “When you are a guest conductor, you can make good music if you and the orchestra fit well together,” he observes. That certainly was the case during that visit, in which he led a probing and compelling account of Mahler’s First Symphony.
Frühbeck was born in 1933 to German parents who settled in the northern Spanish town of Burgos after World War I. (Contrary to most sources, the conductor is not the child of a German father and a Spanish mother.) His culture-loving mother laid the groundwork for his eventual career. He played violin from an early age and by 14 was concertmaster at the local theater, where zarzuelas dominated the bill and the time allotted for rehearsals was limited. “There was no oboe in this orchestra,” he recalls, “so whenever it was necessary I played the solo on the violin. You learned quite a lot that way.”
He continued his studies at the Madrid conservatory when he was 17. But he also studied law, because his father, an optometrist, worried how Rafael would earn a living. That concern dissipated once the son landed another theater job. “I earned 90 pesetas a day, which was a fortune for a student,” Frühbeck says. “Though my father didn’t like music as a business, he was impressed by this.”
Military service was compulsory for young men when Frühbeck came of age, but even that experience advanced his musical education. “In Franco’s time, you had to go to the military,” the conductor says. “But I won a competition to direct a military band—the second best job in the army. The first one I could not apply for, because that meant being a priest.”
He honed useful skills in the army. “To have a band to work with every day was very good for me,” he says. “I know many of the symphonies note by note because I had transcribed them then. But I knew something was missing in my education: the technique of an orchestra conductor.” Schooling in Munich changed that, and when he returned to Spain he was ready for his first real post, in Bilbao. Then—when he was just 29—he secured the most prestigious musical job in his homeland, serving as the Spanish National Orchestra’s principal conductor. His tenure spanned from 1962 to 1978, and there he cemented his reputation as arguably the world’s foremost interpreter of the Spanish masters, Falla in particular. He also made a justly admired orchestration of Albéniz’s Suite Española.
That long-serving stint also produced the name by which we know him, for the Franco regime couldn’t accept so highprofile a musician having such a foreign-sounding name. “My boss said, ‘I cannot explain every time about your name, which sounds German even though you are Spanish,’ ” the conductor says. “So I added Burgos.”
Frühbeck’s repertory is so broad—up to 700 works in his estimation—that it may seem he has no specialties. In fact, he has proved himself adept in various areas. Brahms dominates this season, with cycles in Dresden and Burgos, where a new hall is to be inaugurated. His professional regrets are few, but not insignificant: “There is one orchestra that I have not conducted, and that is the Vienna Philharmonic. Also the Concertgebouw. And I never have conducted any Russian orchestra, though I may conduct the Mariinsky. But all the others I think I have done—at least the big ones.”
If little has eluded Musical America’s Conductor of the Year in the symphonic repertory, that’s not the case with opera. “I did around 30 operas during my six years at the opera house, but there are least another 200 I would like to conduct,” he acknowledges, “among them Rosenkavalier, Tristan, and Zauberflöte. If I started my career again and did not conduct any of the pieces I have conducted, I still would not be able to do all I want to. There’s so much!” •
David Mermelstein writes about classical music for the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, BBC Music Magazine, and MusicalAmerica.com. For a decade he reviewed classical recordings for the New York Times.