In Memoriam Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
I should kick myself now for not having gone backstage to say hello…you can lose people from sheer timidity, after all. And agents aren’t supposed to be timid.
Last December, I found myself in Los Angeles. The trip was a vain attempt to escape the cold. And it would ultimately yield nothing but tooth-chattering selfies at deserted beaches all the way down the coast. But I did have the opportunity to hear iconic Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Rimsky-Korsakoff”s Scheherazade and an early Haydn symphony. Both performances were classic, warmhearted Frühbeck in his comfort zone. I wrote-up the concert at the time, and a review can be found here. But I had no idea this would be Frühbeck’s last week with the Philharmonic, nor that six months later he would be dead from cancer at eighty-one. He did seem a bit frail and tired, so I had thought better than to go backstage and disturb him. But now he’s gone, of course…
During the mid-seventies I had the good fortune to work as Rafael Frühbeck’s booking agent at Shaw Concerts, shortly after Sol Hurok (and his agency) died, and to look after his American concerts for about three years. During this time I was able to strengthen his relationship with the LA Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra and set up a Principal Guest Conductorship for him at the National Symphony in Washington. It was an immensely satisfying experience. In his repertoire of big sensuous pieces and grand choral ones, there was no one better. And though Frühbeck was a formal man who did not invite intimacy, a European gentleman very much of the old school, his unfailing politeness, lack of neurosis or outsized ego made every encounter with him a pleasure.
There was an amusing touch of cloak and dagger involved in signing him up. Harold Shaw, the owner of our agency and a wily Hurok protegé himself, was a remarkable judge of character and temperament, as the best agents always are. One day he called me into his office to explain that Frühbeck de Burgos was now without American representation. He was up for grabs, so to speak, with our competitors at ICM and Columbia Artists. But it was Harold Shaw’s conviction that our rival agents (who shall be nameless) didn’t like working on Sundays! Frühbeck was at the Kennedy Center. With a knowing chuckle, Shaw dispatched me to Washington—on Sunday! I felt slightly like Henry Kissinger on an unadvertised mission. But the tactical analysis was spot-on. I was the only audience member at Frühbeck’s rehearsal of the Symphonie Fantastique. And an hour later, I had persuaded him to sign-on with us, the beginning of a relationship with the agency which would last for many years. I returned to Shaw Concerts the next day, waving the contract at everyone I saw in the hallway and feeling a lot better than Chamberlain at Munich, or at least feeling triumphant with better reason!
I’ve always been glad I witnessed that rehearsal, which can sometimes be much more telling than a concert. A good conductor is like a Five Star General. He is free to design his own uniform and adopt whatever manner he feels will work with his troops. But in rehearsal you can really begin to tell if he is full of himself or a martinet or even a fraud. And you can certainly determine whether he is a poet or a mechanic, a real leader or a follower, or worse, a prisoner of arithmetic. There is something so personal about asking for a musical phrase, and so saddening if it doesn’t come out as requested, that the psychological tension is very revealing of character. Some conductors single out musicians within the group and razz them piteously with fear, as Toscanini, Reiner or Szell might. Some turn morose and whine “Why won’t you give me what I ask for?” They are not usually invited back. Some keep repeating everything, until you realize they don’t know what they want. But some adopt the perfect balance between direction and diplomacy. They assess what an orchestra can do, encourage it to play as well as it can, do not make anything a personal issue, and enjoy themselves. The National Symphony of that era was a good orchestra, but not yet really a fine one. The principal flute, in particular, produced a whooshing-air sound, inside of which could be occasionally detected the note he was supposedly playing. But Frühbeck didn’t let it bother him.
Frühbeck, I quickly noticed, had all his psychological ducks in order. He showed up, of course, as his public self: formal Chesterfield Overcoat and scarf, elegant tweed jacket. And on the podium he would conduct for a few minutes in his jacket. Then he’d removed it and for the rest of the rehearsal behave simply, efficiently and collegially as a musician among musicians. But so far as I know, there were no nicknames with Frühbeck. He knew he was a general, and so did the troops. I can’t imagine the Philadelphia Orchestra calling him “Ralfie”, the way the players refer to Dutoit as “Charlie”. You might as well have called Karajan “Herbie”!
Not long after this, Frühbeck’s European Agent, Felicitas Keller in Madrid, established contact with our agency, and her brave but stilted attempts at written English served to coordinate Frühbeck’s calendar of engagements. He was clearly the star of her agency (and rumored to be her boyfriend). But Felicitas Keller wanted the world to know that he wasn’t the only famous conductor she had represented. So she wrote us, “We manage Van Beinum—so sorry he die! We manage Schmidt-Isserstedt—then he die. Then we manage Keilberth. So sorry he die, too!” We never did figure out which of her conductors was still living!
During the several following years I had numerous opportunities to hear Fruhbeck, and I will never forget the performance he gave of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the Philadelphia Orchestra one delicious evening at Robin Hood Dell, the orchestra’s summer home nearest to Philadelphia (Saratoga Springs is the other). It was the most exciting and beautiful Rite I have ever heard, somehow warm beneath all the power. Frühbeck was clearly in love with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and it showed. “Oh”, “That orrrchestra!!” he would enthuse, rolling his “r”s.
In those days the Robin Hood Dell concerts were managed by Frederick R. Mann, a blunt Philadelphia entrepreneur and amateur violinist. And one forgets, from today’s perspective, that Spain was still emerging from the Franco years and a fascist past. Franco had just died. So when Mann came backstage, it was understandable, if undiplomatic, that he said what he did: “I never thought I’d be saying to a friend of Franco’s that he performed the best Stravinsky I ever heard!” Oops!
But Frühbeck took it in stride and thanked Mann graciously. Later, I steered him aside and apologized for the remark. But Frühbeck merely snorted, “I am much better friends with the King!”
Doubtless true! And Frühbeck went on from strength to strength. The shadows grow long for his generation, though. We’ve lost Abbado and Colin Davis and Lorin Maazel. Marriner is 91 and still at it. So is Skrowaczewski. Blomstedt and Haitink are not far behind. It remains a thing of astonishment to the young that the passions and fires of music burn so strongly still. May they ever…
Still, we are losing these great conductors one by one. If I were yet at Shaw Concerts, I know I would have received a letter from Felicitas Keller. And inside it would say:”We manage Mr. Frühbeck—so sorry he die!