NZ Symphony orchestra’s first Conductor Laureate passes away at 90.

Franz-Paul Decker, who was appointed the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s first Conductor Laureate in 1995, has died at the age of 90. Decker enjoyed a 40-year association as Guest Conductor, Principal Conductor, and Chief Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and the appointment recognised his significant influence on orchestral performance in New Zealand.

Decker also made regular appearances in Australia, conducting most of the major orchestras (see below), but it is probably for his work in New Zealand that he will be best remembered. Under his baton, the NZSO scaled new heights, most notably in works by Richard Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner, and he gave several outstanding first performances, in keeping with his aim to extend the NZSO’s repertoire. These included Bruckner’s Ninth (1976), Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony (1987) and Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande (1990).

NZSO Chief Executive Christopher Blake says: “Maestro Franz-Paul Decker is much loved by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra family. His insatiable musical appetite, since he first took up his post as Principal Guest Conductor in 1984, will continue to impact the musical life of the NZSO for many years to come.”

Born in Cologne, where he made his conducting debut at 22 with the Cologne Opera. At 26, he was appointed to the Staatsoper, Wiesbaden, where he directed performances of major operas from the German, French, Italian, and British repertoires. He became director of the Wiesbaden Symphony Orchestra three years later and General musikdirector in Bochum (he conducted the opening concert at the 1957 Brussels World Fair with the Bochum Symphony Orchestra). In 1962 he became Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

As the result of his European tours with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Dr Decker was engaged by many of Europe’s finest orchestras, including the major London orchestras, the Vienna Symphony, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome, the Leningrad Philharmonic, the Moscow State Orchestra, the RIAS Symphony Orchestra, Berlin, the Berlin Philharmonic, the French National Radio Orchestra, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.

This recognition led to his North American debut in 1966, when he succeeded Zubin Mehta as Music Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, a position he held for nine years. During this time he consolidated his reputation as an authoritative interpreter of the music of Mahler, Bruckner, Richard Strauss, and Wagner.

In 1990, following four years as Chief Conductor of the Orquestra Ciutat de Barcelona, he took up the post of NZSO Chief Conductor. Two years later he conducted the Orchestra with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in an outstandingly successful concert to celebrate New Zealand Day at Teatro de la Maestranza, part of the 1992 Seville Expo.

In 1989, his NZSO performance of Act III of Wagner’s Die Walküre was much acclaimed as were the highly successful 1997 Das Rheingold concert performances.

Former NZSO violinist Robin Perks remembers the impression made by Decker on his first visit as “awe inspiring. He was more demanding in those days. He required string players to play desk by desk a difficult passage and this really frightened many of us, but the results in concerts were probably the best achieved to this point.”

Dr Decker undertook many operatic engagements, including productions of Tristan und Isolde, with the great Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers in Chicago, Dallas, Montreal, Rio de Janiero and Barcelona. He conducted 85 different operas during his distinguished career including Parsifal, Ariadne auf Naxos, and The Flying Dutchman in Buenos Aires, where he also undertook a three-year complete Mahler cycle.

Franz-Paul Decker June 22, 1923 – May 19, 2014.