French conductor Louis Frémaux, Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra between 1979 and 1981, has died aged 95.

The SSO conductor, whose performances UK music critic Noel Goodwin described as “frequently distinguished by freshness, suppleness and, in the French repertory, an airy brilliance,” led the Orchestra in the years before Charles Mackerras took over as Chief.

SSO Principal Trombone Ronald Prussing, who was hired during Féraux’s tenure, shared his memories of the conductor with Limelight.

“I distinctly recall how elegant he was as a conductor on the podium,” Prussing said. “He was very French. He wasn’t boisterous but he was quite clear.”

“He was very, very good at the French repertoire, particularly things like the Organ Symphony of Saint-Saëns – the Bizet Symphony in C he was very good at,” he said. “And a little bit of English music, too – he did a very, very good Walton Symphony No 1 which was really quite stunning. I think he did that as a guest and on that basis was considered for Chief Conductor.”

Frémaux was born in Air-sur-la-Lys, France in 1921 and studied at the Valenciennes Conservatoire. His musical education was interrupted by the Second World War, however, in which he served with the Resistance in France and with the Foreign Legion in East Asia. He continued his studies at the Paris Conservatoire, winning a premier prix for conducting in 1952. In 1953 he made his debut and was soon appointed musical director of the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra, a position he held for a little under a decade.

In 1969 he was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur and was appointed music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), a position he held until 1978.

“He brought an international perspective to the SSO, especially in that French repertoire,” Prussing said. “He followed Van Otterloo, who was very much a Germanic conductor. So the orchestra most probably had to refocus a little bit on its sound palette. I think that was his biggest contribution – there was a different sort of focus in the sound and in the repertoire that was being brought to Sydney audiences.”

A young trombonist at the beginning of his career, Prussing’s appointment to the SSO came not long after Frémaux’s. “The very first time I played for him was not in the audition process, but I was called in at very short notice to play the trombone solo in Bolero, for a video recording that was going out on ABC TV,” he explained. “I got called in and it seemed to have gone pretty well. I know that during the audition process when they were all listening, Louis Frémaux had the final say and he said, ‘I want that guy – he played Bolero for me the other day.’ That’s the sort of ‘tape’ we put in in those days. He selected me for which I’m very grateful. My first official concert as a member of the SSO was the Fauré Requiem.”

While there was something of a cloud over the French conductor’s leaving the CBSO, following disagreements between conductor and orchestra, Prussing remembers a quiet, slightly reclusive man. “I think people generally liked him as a person,” he said. “He always spoke in quite a soft accent to the orchestra when he was addressing us.”

For Prussing, Frémaux’s interpretation of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler has stayed in his memory. “It’s got quite a difficult passage at the opening of the last movement,” he explained. “He always used to conduct it with extreme dexterity and clarity.”

“The biggest highlight had to be playing the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony in a direct broadcast to Europe from the Opera House Concert Hall. It was a Sunday night performance that was broadcast to Europe and that went extremely well. We had rehearsed a lot for it and he conducted very well and the orchestra was very exciting – I think it was one of the best performances we’ve given under Louis Frémaux. That was a real memory.”