Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a noted Spanish conductor and a frequent guest on the podium of the Boston Symphony Orchestra among many other ensembles, has announced that he is fighting cancer and will be ceasing all conducting activities.
“After meeting with my doctors,” Frühbeck de Burgos said in a statement on Wednesday, “I have come to the following conclusion: I have to recognize publicly that I have cancer and that in this state of health and with deep sorrow I am not able to conduct at my standards and the moment to quit professional matters has come.”
Frühbeck de Burgos, 80, is the most prominent Spanish conductor of his generation. At the time of his retirement, he held the position of chief conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and enjoyed close relationships with many of the major American orchestras. With the BSO, he had been scheduled to appear both at Tanglewood this summer, and next season in Symphony Hall, where he has been a regular guest since 2000.
“At a certain point life is about relationships, and we really developed a special relationship with him,” said Mark Volpe, managing director of the BSO. “And it came at a period when we had a certain degree of instability in the artistic leadership, as health concerns from [former music director] Jimmy [Levine] prompted many cancellations. I can’t tell you how many times Rafael changed plans or did whatever he could to make himself available. So he was not just an artistic figure here, but a real friend of the orchestra.”
During the late years of Levine’s tenure, Frühbeck de Burgos effectively became the go-to substitute for key programs requiring replacement conductors. He stepped in, for instance, for portions of what was to be Levine’s first complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies, as well as for Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” which was performed both at Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall. In total, between 2000 and his most recent performance with the BSO this past fall, Frühbeck de Burgos led the orchestra 133 times.
The conductor’s health had been an issue of speculation and concern for local concertgoers since 2012, when Frühbeck de Burgos arrived at Tanglewood for a weekend of performances looking extremely thin and frail. At that time, his management confirmed that he had undergone “a resection of the digestive tract” and had been also struggling with lower back pain. Even so, Frühbeck de Burgos’s frequent visits continued at a pace seemingly unchanged, though he began conducting at times from a stool.
Replacements for his upcoming performances with the orchestra have not yet been announced. They include two appearances with the BSO this summer (July 27 and Aug. 3) as well as two programs next season.