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Manuel Rosenthal, 98; French Conductor Was Ravel's Last Student

June 13, 2003|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Manuel Rosenthal, the third and last pupil of Maurice Ravel and one of France's most important 20th century conductors, has died. He was 98.

Rosenthal died June 5 in his native Paris. The cause of death was not reported.

In addition to presiding over the French premieres of works by Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky and Sergey Prokofiev, he was himself a composer of varied and distinguished music, but the public at large probably knows him best for the sparkling orchestrations of Jacques Offenbach that he did for the 1938 ballet "Gaite Parisienne."

Rosenthal was born June 18, 1904, the illegitimate son of a Russian midwife and a wealthy Russian. He took his surname from his stepfather, a Parisian pharmacist, whom his mother subsequently married.

Rosenthal began playing violin at 9 and, with the death of his stepfather in 1918, started supporting his mother, sister and himself by playing violin in theater orchestras and cafe ensembles throughout the city.

He also began composing, although he entered the Paris Conservatory as a violinist. In 1921, he achieved a succes de scandale when a performance of his Sonatine for two violins and piano caused an uproar of disapproval.

Still, Ravel, among others, was intrigued by Rosenthal's music and, after hearing some of his songs in 1924, asked the younger man to begin studying with him. The master-pupil relationship blossomed into a close friendship that lasted until Ravel's death in 1937.

Ravel also encouraged Rosenthal's conducting career. After making his debut in 1928 with the Orchestre Pasdeloup, Rosenthal became co-conductor of the French Radio Orchestra in Paris from 1934 until his mobilization as an infantryman at the outbreak of World War II.

He was held as a prisoner of war in Germany from 1940 to 1941 and joined the French Resistance after his release.

Following the liberation of France, he returned to the helm of the Radio Orchestra from 1944 to 1947. He was engaged as conductor of the Seattle Symphony in 1949 until his summary dismissal in 1951 on grounds of moral turpitude. (The soprano who appeared with the orchestra under the name of Mme. Rosenthal -- actually Claudine Verneuil -- was not his wife.)

He returned to Seattle in 1986, however, at the age of 82, to conduct Richard Wagner's "Ring" Cycle.

Then-Los Angeles Times music critic Martin Bernheimer wrote of that performance: "Some iconoclasts -- this one, for instance -- lamented the pervasive absence of weight and grandeur, the softening of climactic accents, the ubiquitous stress upon transparency, the lack of idiomatic vocal phrasing, the orchestral problems involving pitch and precision.

"Still, one had to admire the old man's audacity, the saving grace of his professionalism and his ability to keep things moving against the odds."

In the interim, Rosenthal had conducted in Buenos Aires, Havana, Paris and Liege, Belgium, and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In later years, he continued to conduct and record. He made his third recording of "Gaite Parisienne" when he was 92.

In 1987, Rosenthal published a book of reminiscences: "Satie, Ravel, Poulenc: An Intimate Memoir."

He was married twice and had two sons.

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