Obituaries

Jeffrey Tate, 74, conductor who overcame spina bifida

Mr. Tate, who had spina bifida, was chief conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra for several years.

Andrea Mohin/New York Times/File 2012

Mr. Tate, who had spina bifida, was chief conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra for several years.

Jeffrey Tate, an English conductor whose precise, incisive interpretations of the German repertoire and inspired work with singers made him a constant presence at concert halls and opera houses around the world, died June 2 in Bergamo, Italy. He was 74.

The cause was a heart attack, his agency, Artists Management Zurich, said in a statement. He had recently been conducting in Northern Italy.

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Mr. Tate, who was knighted in April for his services to music, cut an unusual figure on the stage. His body twisted out of shape by spina bifida and kyphosis, a severe curvature of the spine, he conducted from a tall stool, limited in his ability to turn to either side.

Despite these limitations, he rose quickly to conducting’s front ranks after leading the Goteborg Opera in “Carmen” in Sweden in 1978.

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“As the music moved under my hands, I suddenly felt that I was doing something I had been waiting to do all my life,” he told David Blum, the author of “Quintet: Five Journeys Toward Musical Fulfillment,” published in 2000.

Two years later, Mr. Tate made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, taking over on three hours’ notice from James Levine to conduct a newly completed version of Alban Berg’s “Lulu,” which had been left unfinished at the composer’s death. Peter G. Davis, in a review in The New York Times, called it “a performance of rare precision and authority,” adding, “The Met has a new conductor of exceptional talents.”

After conducting at the Met and other houses, Mr. Tate became the principal conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra in 1985, recording acclaimed interpretations of Mozart’s last 16 symphonies, the late symphonies of Haydn and, with Mitsuko Uchida, the complete Mozart piano concertos.

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He was named principal conductor of the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in 1986, sharing creative duties with Bernard Haitink, and after leaving five years later, he became the chief conductor and artistic director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. In 2009, he took over as chief conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, which extended his contract in 2014.

Mr. Tate was a much-traveled Wagnerian, performing more than 20 Ring Cycles from Paris to Adelaide, Australia, after assisting Pierre Boulez in the 100th-anniversary production of the Ring at Bayreuth in 1976.

Jeffrey Philip Tate was born on April 28, 1943, in Salisbury, England. His father, Cyril, was a postal worker. His mother, the former Ivy Evans, was a homemaker and accomplished amateur pianist.

When he was young, the family moved to Farnham, Surrey, where Jeffrey attended Farnham Grammar School. He showed early signs of musical talent, but managed only five years of piano lessons in a childhood marked by constant medical treatment and long stays in the hospital.

“I was a good but not brilliant pianist, an indifferent cellist, and I could sing,” he told The Guardian in 2011.

Bowing to his parents’ wishes, he accepted a scholarship to study medicine at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He completed a residency at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, where he trained as an eye surgeon.

Medicine went out the window after he successfully auditioned for the London Opera Center, a training institution, and took a one-year program in vocal coaching.

“At the time, it literally did not occur to me that I could use coaching as a way of becoming a conductor, but, of course, I now feel that it was the ideal way to go about it,” he told The Times in 1986.

“It’s very much the same route that the great conductors of the past took, going from opera coaching to opera conducting and eventually to symphonic work.”

He added: “I can’t help but feel that when you’ve heard an opera from the inside — having worked with the singers, discussed the dramatic nature of the work, and pondered its problems — you are likely to gain a great deal of insight, which will help interpretively when you’re standing in front of an orchestra.”

He was hired by Covent Garden in 1969 as a rehearsal pianist and soon found himself a favorite with singers.

“When Jeffrey coached singers, he always insisted on beautiful phrasing,” the soprano Teresa Cahill told Blum. “He took care with short notes that shouldn’t be hurried over, and with upbeats, which can be more important than downbeats — all the things that magic is made of.”

He enjoyed a close collaboration with the conductor Georg Solti, assisting him as a vocal coach and playing continuo on 10 opera recordings. His preparation of the singers at Bayreuth in 1976 played no small part in the success of Patrice Chéreau’s production. In 1983 he returned to Bayreuth to conduct “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walkurie.”

For many years, he was the principal guest conductor for the Orchestre National de France, the Geneva Opera, and the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Turin. He conducted Mozart and Strauss for six seasons at the Met and, before taking over in Hamburg, served as the director of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples.

He leaves his husband, Klaus Kuhlemann, whom he met while assisting John Pritchard at the Cologne Opera in 1977. He lived in London and Detmold, Germany.

Mr. Tate conducted his final concerts with the Haydn Orchestra at the end of May in Bolzano and Trento, Italy.

Mr. Tate, who became chairman of the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus (now Shine) in 1989, played down his disability and spoke of the rigors of conducting — up to and including Wagner’s marathon-length “Parsifal” — with cheery gusto.

“It’s immensely therapeutic,” he told The Guardian. “I frequently find after a rehearsal of a performance that I have more breath, and can walk better and climb stairs better than I could before. It’s as if I’ve expanded my lungs doing it. Basically speaking, conducting is quite a healthy profession.”

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