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San Francisco Opera's Sir John Pritchard Dies

December 06, 1989|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sir John Pritchard, the distinguished Mozartian who was equally at home conducting in leading opera houses and principal concert halls of the world, died Tuesday in a hospital in Daly City, near San Francisco.

A spokesman for the San Francisco Opera, where Pritchard had been music director since 1986, said he was 68 and had cancer.

Only three months ago, the ailing Sir John fulfilled a lifelong desire to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in London's Royal Albert Hall, one of Britain's most distinguished musical traditions.

He had been chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1982 until two months ago. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1983 for his contributions to music.

He also was considered a singular force in opera and had worked with such divas as Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas.

He was born John Michael Pritchard, the son of a professional violinist who took him to his first Promenade Concert in London when he was only 6. He was taught privately by his father, studying piano and viola. After wartime service he began conducting semiprofessional orchestras before joining England's Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1947.

The following year he became chorus master at Glyndebourne and when the conductor of a production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" fell ill in midperformance in 1949, Sir John assumed the podium and launched what proved a four-decade, international career.

He studied conducting under Sir Henry Wood and later became a protege of the German conductor Fritz Busch.

In an interview, Pritchard once recalled how Busch told him: "John, you have a natural sense of tempo. You were born with it. It's the most priceless gift for conductors."

During the 1950s he began to devote his resources to both opera and symphonies and was invited to conduct at the Vienna State Opera early in 1952. He made his American debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra the following year.

In addition to heading the highly regarded BBC symphony, he became musical director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, music director of the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, music director of the Cologne Opera, and principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic.

At Liverpool, he started the custom of "Musica Viva" at contemporary music concerts, in which performances were preceded by explanatory words and examples of the music. He conducted several significant world premieres, among them Benjamin Britten's "Gloriana" in 1954, when he was only 33.

While Pritchard had lengthy ties to many opera houses and symphony orchestras, he generally preferred to move about the world rather than stay with a single organization.

On Jan. 1, 1986, he became the first music director in the 63-year history of the San Francisco Opera, signing a five-year contract. He had made his operatic debut in that city in 1970 with "Cosi fan Tutte," and for the next few years led productions of "Peter Grimes," "Don Giovanni," an acclaimed "Idomeneo," "La Cenerentola" and "Thais."

He was noted for his energy and versatility, and paid great attention to detail, once studying Russian as he prepared rehearsals for a production of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."

Pritchard often spoke of his love of the London Promenade concerts or "Proms."

And he finally achieved a cherished ambition in September by directing the Last Night of the Proms, traditionally an emotional and patriotic occasion, though his illness forced him to sit while conducting.

San Francisco Opera will dedicate its final performance of the season, Richard Strauss' "Die Frau ohne Schatten" to him on Sunday.

He will be buried in Sussex near Glyndebourne.

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