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Hans Vonk, 63; Dutch Conductor Led St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

September 01, 2004|From Associated Press

Hans Vonk, the music director of the St. Louis Symphony from 1996 to the spring of 2002 when declining health forced him to retire, died Sunday at his home in Amsterdam. He was 63.

Vonk died of a rare neurological condition similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The condition caused weakness in his hands and feet and gradually spread through his body.

The effects of the disease showed during a February 2002 concert when he was forced to stop conducting during Samuel Barber's "Medea's Meditation and the Dance of Vengeance," when he was unable to turn a page of the score. He had to be helped offstage during the performance.

"When you do a symphony with Hans Vonk, it's not about him," David Halen, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster, told Associated Press some years ago.

"He really thinks of himself as a servant of the music. It's a very humble approach for a conductor to take in today's world."

An obituary of Vonk in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sunday noted that the conductor "brought a new clarity of tone in the ensemble's sound, particularly in the strings, as well as a greater discipline to the orchestra."

The obituary also noted that Vonk was particularly well-known for his interpretation of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler.

Vonk was born in Nazi-controlled Amsterdam on June 18, 1941. He enrolled at the University of Amsterdam to study law, but switched to music and graduated from the Amsterdam Conservatory in 1964. His first appointment as a conductor was with the Netherlands Ballet. It was there that he met his future wife, ballerina Jessie Folkerts, who survives him.

Before coming to St. Louis, where he replaced Leonard Slatkin, Vonk served with the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Dresden State Opera and the Cologne Radio Symphony, among others.

Vonk appeared as a guest conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in August 2000, conducting Beethoven's Symphony No. 3.

He was also a guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

"My feeling is that he always considered himself more of a musician than the omnipotent, autocratic conductor," Halen said. "I sometimes think that he secretly would have liked to have been a musician in the orchestra. It's a very lonely position at the top."

A memorial service is scheduled for Thursday in Amsterdam.

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