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Esteemed British conductor Sir Jeffrey Tate CBE has passed away at the age of 74. Sir Jeffrey, who was appointed Principal Guest Conductor and Artistic Adviser of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in 2015, died of a heart attack in Bergamo, Italy, while visiting the Accademia Carrera art gallery. He had conducted performances of Mahler’s 9th Symphony with the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento on May 30 and 31, and was on his way to Turin for a concert next week with the RAI National Symphony Orchestra.
Sir Jeffrey Tate with the ASO after the final concert he conducted for them at the Festival Theatre on October 29, 2016
The well-liked, hugely respected maestro had been Chief Conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra since 2009. Earlier this year, he was named in the New Year’s Honours List for his services to British music overseas. He received his knighthood from Prince William just six weeks ago at an investiture ceremony held in London. Fittingly, his concerts with the ASO in 2016 celebrated the music of English composer Frederick Delius.
"We performed Delius' Violin Concerto with Tasmin Little – and that's a seldom performed work. It's a gorgeous work and a piece that Jeffrey had a strong affection for. He was very determined that it should be among his programme when we were planning last year," the ASO's Chief Exective Vincent Ciccarello tells Limelight. Sir Jeffrey was to have conducted Elgar and Vaughan Williams in Adelaide in October.
In a statement, Nicholas Carter, Principal Conductor of the ASO, expressed his sadness at the news of the conductor’s death. “Jeffrey was a truly wonderful musician who graced the classical music world with integrity for many decades,” said Carter. “His music making was profound; in much of the repertoire he represented a gold standard. He is and will always be remembered warmly for the remarkable work he has always brought to the Adelaide Symphony family. He will be sorely missed by me and all musicians and members of the Adelaide musical community.”
The relationship between Sir Jeffrey and the ASO was forged in 1998 when he conducted the successful Adelaide Ring cycle (originally created for the Théâtre du Chátelet in 1994 which he also conducted) directed by Pierre Strosser. He subsequently conducted the Orchestra several times over the years including a season of Wagner’s Parsifal in 2004. Last year, he conducted Richard Strauss’s A Hero’s Life as part of the ASO’s 80th birthday celebrations.
"The 1998 Ring Cycle for which the ASO played was a very special time," says Ciccarello. "The ASO had never worked with a conductor on a single project so intensively over such a long period – that is just a function of what it takes to put on an entire Ring Cycle – so the relationship that developed between Jeffrey and the players and even some members of the management team then was very special and very close. I can say quite confidently and quite proudly that some of the friendships that Jeffrey forged then have continued to this very day. When we were looking to formulate our new artistic leadership team in 2015 we knew that we wanted to continue our association with Jeffrey and we were thrilled when he accepted our offer."
"I had met him fleetingly many years ago but I only really got to know him when we extended our offer in 2015 and the thing that really struck me – which is the thing that struck everybody about Jeffrey – was his incredible humanity. He had quite a sharp intellect and a very sophisticated but, at the same time, subtle understanding of music and the architecture of it and the messages he wanted to convey. All of that speaks to his innate humanity and his care for others – certainly in the way he conducted rehearsals and performances. Some of the musicians who performed with him in the 1998 Ring Cycle still say that it was the highlight of their performing careers."
The Hamburg Symphony Orchestra also issued a statement expressing sadness at his death, saying: “His music has made the world a better place, and we are infinitely grateful for the hours, days, and years we could spend with Sir Jeffrey."
Sir Jeffrey is knighted by Prince William in April
Born with spina bifida, Sir Jeffrey had a curved spine and paralysed left leg and conducted sitting on a tall stool. He told The Guardian in 2011 that he found the strenuous physicality required for conducting “immensely therapeutic”, saying: “I frequently find after a rehearsal or a performance that I have more breath, and can walk better and climb stairs better than I could. It’s after if I’ve expanded by lungs doing it. Basically speaking, conducting is quite a healthy profession.”
Sir Jeffrey did a great deal to raise awareness of the condition through his music and through his work as President of the UK Spina Bifida charity, Shine – a position he had held since 1989.
The conductor was born in Salisbury on April 28, 1943. He studied medicine at Cambridge University and spent three years as an eye surgeon in London before turning to conducting at the age of 27. He began his musical training at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970. He worked as an assistant to George Solti in London, Sir John Pritchard in Cologne, Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg, James Levine in New York and Pierre Boulez on the centenary Ring Cycle at the 1976 Bayreuth Festival.
He made his conducting debut in 1978 when he conducted Carmen with the Gothenburg Opera in Sweden. The following year, he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time. In 1985, he became Principal Conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra, and in 1986 was the first person to be appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Opera House. He was also Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from 1991 to 1995, and Music Director of the San Carlo Theatre of Naples from 2005 to 2010. In 2009, he became Chief Conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, where his contract was extended until 2019. He was also Honorary Director of the National Italian Radio Orchestra from 2001.
Sir Jeffrey was regarded as one of the world’s pre-eminent conductors of Wagner and Strauss. He was also a highly respected interpreter of core classical and romantic repertoire, British music of the late 19th and 20th century, and of modern and contemporary classical music. He leaves a remarkable legacy of fine recordings.
In 2001, 2002 and 2003, he was awarded the Franco Abbiatit Prize (the most prestigious music critics’ prize in Italy). He was also named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, and Commander of the British Empire.
Sir Jeffrey lived in Germany with his partner of 40 years, Klaus Kuhlemann, a German scientist.