L.A. Philharmonic has welcome mat out for guest conductor

Youth has its advantages, as Gustavo Dudamel proves every time he mounts a podium. But age offers compensations too. Just ask Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the Spanish maestro who has become a beloved guest conductor throughout the world. Better yet, ask some of the musicians who labor under his benign yet authoritative hand, including those at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The orchestra will play two different programs under Frühbeck’s baton at the Hollywood Bowl this week.

“I think I represent the majority of the orchestra in saying that he’s one of our favorites,” said Barry Gold, a cellist in the Philharmonic. “We look forward to having him back as often as possible.”

Martin Chalifour, the Philharmonic’s concertmaster, grew up hearing Frühbeck conduct the Montreal Symphony and later performed with him as a soloist in Atlanta and L.A. “He’s perfected the art of collaboration and long-term relationships with various orchestras,” he said.

Frühbeck, who lives in Madrid and turns 78 in September, made his Philharmonic debut in 1969, but he really bonded with the ensemble after 2003, when he started appearing in Los Angeles regularly. For the past two years, he has led the orchestra at both Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Bowl in a single season, rare for a guest conductor. After this week’s programs of music by Beethoven, Berlioz and the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, he is scheduled to return to the L.A. Phil in April.


“The chemistry works very well,” Frühbeck said by phone from Spain last month. “Our concerts have been among the highlights of my last two seasons in America. Musicians don’t like to waste time, but they also like to do well. So I try to do the best I can as quickly as I can. A conductor should know what he wants.”

Efficiency is a priority for this conductor, who speaks warmly of the work ethic of American musicians. “I think they are the most professional of all,” he said. “You have to do things quickly here. In Europe, orchestras are state-funded and money is not that much an issue; they can give more time for rehearsal. But here, in summer, you have at most two rehearsals, usually only one.”

Frühbeck has held his share of permanent posts, most notably as principal conductor of the Spanish National Orchestra from 1962 to 1978. Since 2004 he has been music director of the Dresden Philharmonic. And he takes over the Danish National Symphony starting the season after next. But Americans know him as a guest conductor.

He first appeared in this country in 1969, leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in a concert that aptly fell on Valentine’s Day, presaging his warm relationship with the ensemble from then on. These days he spends about four weeks a year with those musicians. Since 2000 a similar rapport has existed between him and the Boston Symphony, which he also leads for roughly a month annually, including appearances at its summer home, Tanglewood — where he will be immediately before his Bowl dates this year.

To all these associations he brings a spirit of joy, discovery and camaraderie. “He’s an old-fashioned gentleman and just lovely to work with,” said Sarah Jackson, the Philharmonic’s piccolo player. “And he gets what he needs to out of the orchestra in a very short amount of time.”

The conductor has watched the Philharmonic evolve as it continues its transition from Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 17-season tenure to Dudamel’s still-fresh reign. “It’s a process,” he said. “The orchestra is going through a lot of changes, but it was very good in Salonen’s time, and it is very good in Dudamel’s time. I don’t think there is any doubt about that.”

Frühbeck’s graciousness is frequently mentioned. Jackson, for instance, recalls a time at the Bowl when she had to substitute midconcert for a flute player who had cut her hand. “Though she played the overture,” Jackson said of the flutist, “she couldn’t continue, so I sat and sight-read the rest of the program. I knew the piece, but it was still a tense situation, and he made it comfortable. And after it was over, he waited for me offstage to congratulate me and give me a big hug.”

In terms of musical expression, Frühbeck is lauded for many things, but sonic coloring is mentioned often. “For Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique,’ which we’re playing on Tuesday, he’s going to get a really edgy sound from the brass,” Jackson said. “His use of color seems to be oriented toward instrumental groups — as opposed to ‘first oboe, do this; second oboe, do that.’”


Gold echoes that sentiment and adds to it. “He encourages a very beautiful and voluptuous sound,” the cellist said. “He also generates great excitement in the standard repertoire, so it’s like relearning those pieces. It’s great just to watch him on the podium. He is very vital and active and puts so much energy into rehearsals. So that can’t help but be infectious to the members of the orchestra.”

The conductor is happy to return the compliment. “Musicians now are better than they ever were,” he said, speaking of players generally. “The younger generations are superb. And if you compare the big orchestras now with 40 years ago, they are technically better. But they had more personality before, though it is not easy to answer why.”

As to the “art of the guest conductor,” Frühbeck denies any secrets. “You do music the way you think it should be,” he said. “This year I went to St. Petersburg, because Valery Gergiev invited me to come conduct his Mariinsky Orchestra. That was the first time I was with this excellent orchestra. But that is seldom the case these days. Most orchestras I already know, and they are old friends.”