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Erich Leinsdorf; Leading U.S. Conductor

September 13, 1993| From Times Staff and Wire Services

ZURICH, Switzerland — Erich Leinsdorf, a leading conductor of orchestras in the United States and abroad known for reviving neglected music and exploring new works, has died of cancer at 81.

Leinsdorf died Saturday in a Zurich hospital, said his widow, Vera Graf Leinsdorf. Gregor Leinsdorf, a son reached Sunday in New York City, said the conductor had been ill for several months.

Leinsdorf's demanding manner sometimes put him at odds with singers, administrators and other musicians. He was still conducting as late as January, when he performed with the New York Philharmonic.

"There's nothing I need that requires me to polish apples. And it follows that I can be as disagreeable as I like," Leinsdorf said in his last appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1990.

"I look at the world only from my own vantage point," he said.

Leinsdorf was known not only for his familiarity with Mozart--he recorded all Mozart's symphonies for RCA--but for exploring new works and reviving music he thought had been unjustly neglected.

"I constantly add new repertoire, learn new things, bring up forgotten potboilers," he said in a 1988 interview.

Among the major works he introduced was British composer Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem."

"Erich Leinsdorf was one of the last of the old school Germanic conductors--a tough taskmaster, a superb technician and a link to a fast-disappearing romantic tradition," said Times music critic Martin Bernheimer.

Leinsdorf was born in Vienna on Feb. 4, 1912. He studied piano and conducting in Vienna and began pursuing his conducting career in the 1930s. Even before the Nazi annexation of Austria, he was having problems getting a prominent conducting post in Vienna because he was Jewish, his family said.

He caught the attention of Arturo Toscanini, whom Leinsdorf assisted at the Salzburg Festival. Toscanini recommended him to the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1937.

Leinsdorf made his U.S. conducting debut with the Met in a 1938 performance of Wagner's "Die Walkure."

From 1939 to 1943, Leinsdorf was in charge of the Met's German repertory, then took over briefly as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. He served from 1947 to 1956 as music director of the Rochester, N.Y., Philharmonic, followed by a year as director of the New York City Opera.

He took over as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1962 to 1969, and spent his later years as guest conductor of major orchestras.

Among his major recent appearances was conducting an acclaimed performance of Mozart's "Requiem" by the New York Philharmonic in December, 1991, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the composer's death. It was the first time Leinsdorf had conducted the work since a 1964 memorial Mass for John F. Kennedy in Boston.

Leinsdorf once said he saw conducting as "more or less like coaching a team in sports, plus taking part in the game."

"You have to program yourself to live a quiet life and not bum around," he said. "My wife and I don't stay out late. We have a very nice set of friends, live on a sensible diet."

Among his written works are "The Composer's Advocate," a highly regarded book on conducting, and his autobiography, "Cadenza--A Musical Career."

His Argentine-born wife of 25 years, who gave up a career as a violinist to travel with him, said she did not want to single out any key moments of the conductor. "Good music was his high point," she said.

In addition to her, survivors include five adult children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1968, and 10 grandchildren.

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