A fierce, paralyzing snowstorm blanketed the East Coast between February 8 and 10, 1969. It left approximately 6,000 travelers stranded at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. More than 90 deaths were attributed to the storm.
Stuck in Montreal was Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, scheduled to make his conducting debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra on Friday afternoon, February 14.
Not only was it his debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra, but it was the first stop on his inaugural American tour. The debut in Philadelphia was more than just a concert date. It was part of a vow the Spanish-born conductor was determined to keep, one that he had made to himself while studying conducting in Munich.
“The Philadelphia Orchestra is very special for me. When I was a student at the Hochschule für Musik I heard the Orchestra play a concert,” Frühbeck recalled. “It was so beautiful, I said to myself, ‘If I go someday to the United States, I’m going to begin with The Philadelphia Orchestra.’”
With his career in Europe in full swing, he had been invited by Music Director Eugene Ormandy to conduct the Orchestra, and he would not be deterred. So, Frühbeck and his wife endured a 16-hour train ride to New York City. Then, he had to find a hotel room, and a limousine to Philadelphia, no small tasks in the storm-socked city.
“It was difficult to arrive,” he said understatedly. But come he did, limping into his first rehearsal, exhausted and sore from his exertions. But when he led the Orchestra, it was all he imagined it would be.
“We made a concert very, very beautifully,” Frühbeck said. That first concert he conducted was Beethoven’s Overture to Fidelio and his Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”), and Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat.
As Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
On Thursday, October 17, Frühbeck begins a two-week residency that will include his milestone 150th performance with the Orchestra in Philadelphia.
Frühbeck returns to Beethoven in his October residency, conducting the Orchestra in the composer’s Overture to King Stephen and his Symphony No. 8 along with Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Lise de la Salle and Respighi’s The Pines of Rome on Thursday, October 17, Friday, October 18, and Saturday, October 19.
In his second week on the podium he leads the Orchestra in Lalo’s Symphone espagnole with violinist Augustin Hadelich; Debussy’s La Mer; and Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from Daphnis and Chloé on Thursday, October 24, Friday, October 25, and Saturday, October 26. The concert on the 24th marks Frühbeck’s 150th Philadelphia performance with the Orchestra.
Significantly, the 150 includes only his performances with the Orchestra in Philadelphia. He has performed numerous other times with the Orchestra, as recently as last February on a four-city tour of Florida.
As Frühbeck recalled his many years with the Orchestra and his old friend Ormandy, he said that the Orchestra’s “string sound was a full-bodied one that was the envy of the whole world.”
Of today’s ensemble, Frühbeck said, “The Philadelphia Orchestra sound is a very beautiful one, no greater one than that. It’s a great pleasure and honor to conduct The Philadelphia Orchestra.”
But the maestro admits to having no favorite orchestra or composer. “I pride myself that any composer that I’m performing at that moment is my favorite,” he said, adding “I have a special relationship with all the Spanish repertoire.”
In his free time, Frühbeck, who is the chief conductor of the Danish National Symphony, follows the Real Madrid soccer team, swims when he can, and enjoys reading. And in a life devoted to music, there are always scores to study.
“I thank God every day that at 80 I can do 110 concerts a year,” said Frühbeck, who has on his immediate itinerary after Philadelphia, concerts in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
If there’s one thing the fans in those cities can count on, he’ll be there, no matter what the weather may be.