Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the Spanish conductor whose repertoire consisted of nearly 300 works, practically all of which he conducted from memory, died on Wednesday in Pamplona, Spain. He was 80 years old and had been undergoing treatment for cancer.
In a career spanning over six decades, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos guest conducted most of the world's leading orchestras, and turned down offers of a music director's position with some of them because he preferred the non-administrative role of a free agent. Despite his extravagant name, he shunned flamboyance on the podium, and critics remarked on his precise and clear conducting style.
Orchestras frequently hired Frühbeck de Burgos to conduct Spanish music, a role he readily embraced. His 1984 recording of Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain with pianist Alicia de Larrocha was judged the best around by many critics. A pioneering 1965 version of Bizet's Spanish-tinged Carmen – with Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers in the cast – was the first to restore the complete 1875 score with spoken French dialogue.
Burgos is the name of the Spanish city where Frühbeck (son of a German father and a Spanish mother) was born in 1933. He studied the violin as a child, and became concertmaster of the Burgos orchestra when he was 13 years old. Taking up conducting at 17, he became the music director of the Bilbao Sympathy Orchestra at 26.
Frühbeck became Frühbeck de Burgos when he brought the Bilbao orchestra to a music festival in France. "Look, Rafael," the orchestra's manager reportedly told him, "we must do something about this German name. I cannot explain to everyone that you really are Spanish." He annexed the name of his birthplace, although in Spain he was still often referred to as "Señor Frühbeck."
Frühbeck de Burgos had a nearly career-long affiliation with the Spanish National Orchestra. He also held conducting posts with the Montreal Symphony (1974-76), Deutsche Oper Berlin (1992-97) and the Dresden Philharmonic (2004-11), among other ensembles. In 2011 he became the chief conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, the same year that Musical America named him "Conductor of the Year."
Frühbeck de Burgos remained active until very recently, when health problems emerged. Earlier this year he suffered a dizzy spell during a performance with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. He announced his retirement last week.
Among Frühbeck de Burgos's most celebrated recordings are versions of Orff's Carmina Burana, Mozart's Requiem and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.
Frühbeck de Burgos is survived by his wife, María del Carmen Martínez de Frühbeck, his son, Rafael Frühbeck Martínez and daughter Gema Frühbeck Martínez.