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Conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos dies at 80

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the distinguished Spanish conductor who was a frequent guest at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and on podiums across North America, died Wednesday in a clinic in Pamplona, Spain. He was 80.

The conductor, the most prominent Spanish maestro of the day, had announced just last week that he was ceasing all professional activities because of cancer.

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Until that point, he had held the position of chief conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, but that was only the most recent in a succession of positions he held in the course of a six-decade conducting career, including directorships of the Spanish National Orchestra (1962-1978) and for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (1992-1997).

While Spain as a mythical land of music loomed large in the imaginations of many composers, from Bizet to Rimsky-Korsakov, Spanish conductors have been a less common sight on the world’s stages.

Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos was the most visible and widely admired Spanish maestro of his generation, and he wore his national ties proudly. Born to German and Spanish parents as Rafael Frühbeck, he later added the name of his birthplace, Burgos, in northern Spain, as a way of signaling his own Spanish roots on the international stage.

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At the BSO, he never held one of the titled positions, but in certain seasons he conducted more frequently than others who did.

Overall, between 2000 and his final appearance with the BSO last fall, Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos led 133 performances with the orchestra.

During the late years of music director James Levine’s tenure, when health-related cancellations prompted many rounds of administrative scrambling, Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos emerged as the orchestra’s go-to substitute, stepping in for Levine in projects big and small.

In 2009, when Levine withdrew from a high-profile cycle of Beethoven symphonies, it was, characteristically, Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos who stepped in for a portion of the cycle, effectively allowing the BSO to project an air of stability during a time of turbulence.

“I can’t tell you how many times Rafael changed plans or did whatever he could to make himself available,” managing director Mark Volpe told the Globe last week, after the conductor announced his retirement.

“So he was not just an artistic figure here, but a real friend of the orchestra.”

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his last performance at Symphony Hall on Nov. 26, 2013.

Sam Brewer/Boston Symphony Orchestra

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his last performance at Symphony Hall on Nov. 26, 2013.

He was generally beloved by Boston audiences and made particularly strong impressions in outsize choral masterworks such as Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” and in rarities like Rossini’s “Stabat Mater,” which he conducted from memory.

In those cases, he could lead rousing performances that wedded grandeur and sweep with assured theatrical pacing. He also remained a favorite among many members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos’s populist touch was not always accompanied by the unanimous praise of reviewers. This critic at times had reservations about his penchant toward interpretive monumentality in his accounts of classical-era masterworks.

And writing in the Boston Phoenix, the critic Lloyd Schwartz once described Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as “a coarse, aggressive workout.”

There was little disagreement about Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos’s authority in music of his native Spain, including works by Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albeniz, which he led with a sensitive ear for color and an unwavering stylistic mastery.

The conductor’s vast discography, in addition to a notable 1970 recording of “Carmen,” includes Falla’s complete works.

If he served at times as a de facto ambassador for the music of his home country, the diplomacy also flowed in the other direction, with Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos leading, for instance, the first performances in Spain of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”

Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos’s early musical studies took place in Bilbao and Madrid, and one of his first conducting posts was with the Spanish Army during the mid-1950s, after which he traveled to Munich for further studies at the city’s Hochschule für Musik.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, and 5 at Symphony Hall in 2009.

Michael J. Lutch

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, and 5 at Symphony Hall in 2009.

Additional ensembles with which he held posts included the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Dresden Philharmonic. In the United States, he was also a frequent guest with the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

He leaves his wife, María del Carmen Martínez de Frühbeck, as well as a daughter, Gema Frühbeck Martínez, and a son, Rafael Frühbeck Martínez.

Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos had been visibly struggling with his health since at least 2012, when he arrived at Tanglewood for a weekend of performances looking extremely frail and struggling with lower back pain.

In March, he suffered a near collapse while leading the National Symphony Orchestra, supporting himself on the rail of a podium during Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” according to The Washington Post, but all the while continuing to conduct and cue the orchestra. The concert was his last.

News of Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos’s death just a week after the announcement of his retirement shocked even his closest orchestral colleagues.

“This is a devastating loss,” BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe said.

“We appreciated him for many years, of course as a great conductor, but particularly as a human being with a very rare combination of qualities, extremely practical, extremely intellectual, with this huge reservoir of experience. Plus, he was able to show us this huge joy in music and this incredible soul. Just to see his love of music on stage meant so much to everyone.”

Watch a video of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting “Symphonie Fantastique”:

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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