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The news that Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos is retiring from the podium was not shocking to hear. Many have known that his health has been precarious for a number of years. Wednesday he made his cancer public. “In this state of health and with deep sorrow,” he said, “I am not able to conduct at my standards.”

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos
Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos

The news was not shocking, but terribly sad. Few conductors remain who carry the name “maestro” with such grand bearing. He could be intimidating. He rapped on the podium with his long baton. And he could communicate without a word. Musicians spoke of his left hand as if it possessed some magical grace. Before the performances of Verdi’s Requiem in March–which will now be known as Fruhbeck’s last with the St. Louis Symphony–cellist Bjorn Ranheim told me: “For a conductor, the key to everything that’s non-rhythmic—nuances of phrasing and musicality, the sense of direction and line—all of that comes from the left hand.” Fruhbeck conveyed all that, and a lot more from his vast knowledge and understanding of the music–the music deeply felt and greatly loved.

Verdi’s Requiem concludes: Libera me. Deliver me. Music-making of his kind was an act of deliverance.