The widely admired Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos died this morning in Pamplona, Spain at age 80. It was just a week ago that Frühbeck acknowledged he was ill with cancer and announced, via the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that he would have to cease working.
"After meeting with my doctors I have come to the following conclusion: I have to recognize publicly that I have cancer and that in this state of health and with deep sorrow I am not able to conduct at my standards and the moment to quit professional matters has come," Frühbeck said in the statement.
Until his retirement announcement last week, Frühbeck was chief conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, where his contract was to last until 2015. He was also a favorite guest conductor at many top American orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra — where he reportedly conducted more than 130 concerts — and the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among many others. He served as principal guest conductor for Washington's National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) from 1980 to 1988.
For many years, Frühbeck worked avidly with young musicians, and was a fixture at both the Tanglewood Music Center and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. As he told violinist Hilary Hahn in a video interview she made with him four years ago, he took particular delight in seeing students he had worked with at Tanglewood and Curtis years later, seated in the orchestras he guest conducted around the U.S.
Born in the city of Burgos, Spain on September 15, 1933, Frühbeck took on his hometown's name as he established his professional career. (His father was of German origin.) Frühbeck began playing violin at age 7 at the behest of his mother, and went on to study violin, piano, theory and composition at conservatories in Bilbao and Madrid. He later studied conducting at Munich's Hochschule für Musik, where he graduated summa cum laude and was awarded the Richard Strauss Prize.
His conducting posts took him widely across the globe. He led the Montreal Symphony Orchestra briefly in the mid-1970s and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra between 1980 and 1983. More recently, he served as the chief conductor for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (1991-96), the Deutsche Oper Berlin (1992-97), the Rundfunkorchester Berlin (1994-2000) and the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Italy (2002-07).
Frühbeck made his New York debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in February 1969. New York Times critic Harold Schonberg praised his performance of Manuel de Falla's Three-Cornered Hat at that concert, saying that he conducted it "beautifully ... adding the kind of rhythmic pliancy that a musician born to the language has mastered."