The world knew him as a force for opera, leading the New York City Opera for 35 years and spearheading the careers of Placido Domingo and Beverly Sills. Western New York knew him as the music director, for an eventful six years, of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
From either perspective, the elegant, Viennese-born conductor Julius Rudel, who died Thursday at 93, left an impressive legacy.
As a young woman in New York City, BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta greatly admired his conducting.
“As a student I would go to the New York City Opera and listen to his rehearsals,” she said. “I remember what amazing rehearsals he ran. He heard everything. He would conduct for a long time, then stop and talk about a list of things to improve and correct. I was always dazzled by that, that he could hear so clearly and so well.”
Rudel led the Philharmonic from 1978 to 1984. His last concert with the orchestra was in 2002, when, at 81, he returned as guest conductor.
“He was a very gracious and wonderful man,” Falletta said. “I know our musicians loved seeing him. He always brought a special elegance and a special kind of courtly European charm to the orchestra. He was responsible in a very real way for their polished and European approach to music-making.”
Rudel arrived at the BPO at a touchy time, when the Buffalo music community was divided over the avant-garde programming of Michael Tilson Thomas and Lukas Foss. The new music director’s classical sensibilities were cheered by traditionalists and looked at with skepticism by those who favored musical experimentation.
His warmth and musicianship, though, won over listeners across the board. Musicians admired Rudel for his high artistic standards and his passion for music.
“He knew how to get the music out of us,” said BPO first violinist Marylouise Nanna, who conducts frequently as music director of the Ars Nova Musicians. “He was always wonderful when he did those concerts with opera stars. That was his niche. You could tell he was in heaven when he was doing that.”
As a boy in Vienna, Rudel saw the operas “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Elektra” conducted by their composer, Richard Strauss. As a tot of 2, he watched the famous diva Maria Jeritza sing “Carmen.”
He was 16 when he and his family, who were Jewish, had to leave Vienna because of the gathering Nazi threat.
“There was no choice. It was that or oblivion,” he told The News in an interview when he was 81 and returning to the BPO as guest conductor. “For me, it was very lucky that I was able to come to America and continue my studies here.”
Looking back on his years with the BPO, Rudel recalled several triumphs that stood out in his mind.
“There was a St. Matthew Passion that I thought came off very well,” he said. “The Mahler Fifth. Prokofiev’s Third. The Liszt Faust Symphony.”
Nanna recalled with pleasure an extensive California tour the BPO made with Rudel. “We enjoyed it very much. We did nice things – Wagner, Ravel,” she said. “I remember we got wonderful reviews when we were there. His programs were always well balanced. It was such a joy to play with him.”
Though saddened by Rudel’s death, Nanna had to laugh as she remembered the maestro’s striking good looks.
“There was one day we all got off the bus – it was very warm, and we’d been on a long bus ride, and we got to this very nice motel we were staying at. We’re all trudging in, and we see him – he’s sunning himself, and he looked like an Adonis. We almost flipped our lids. Good Lord, he was not a young man, but he looked so great. And there he was, to welcome us there.”
Rudel stayed active as a conductor until very recently. His son, Anthony, who married a woman from East Aurora and maintains ties to this area, was so influenced by his father’s love for opera that he wrote a novel about Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
A modest man, the maestro had to be coaxed by The News on his last visit into naming a few highlights of his career.
“My first time at the Staatsoper. My debut there,” he said, alluding to the Vienna State Opera, where stands a statue of his BPO predecessor, Josef Krips. “Or, when I conducted ‘Don Giovanni’ in Prague. That was frightening,” Rudel added. “To think of standing at the same place Mozart did!”
Rudel showed a touching humility about his own place in the musical world.
“It was just a dream,” he told The News. “I had no certainty at all about it that it would happen, that it could happen.”
Buffalo can feel fortunate to have been a part of that dream.
“I am very happy to be the beneficiary, at the BPO, of all his excellence in working with the orchestra,” Falletta said. “The BPO musicians and I bid him a very sad and very grateful farewell.”