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Friday, September 2, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Conductor Hermann Michael, 1937-2005, cherished by local musicians

Seattle Times music critic

There is no greater tribute to a conductor than the love of the musicians he conducted. Hermann Michael, a regular guest conductor at Seattle Opera and Seattle Symphony since the late 1980s, was one of those rare maestros who earned the genuine love of musicians — an often-contentious group who sometimes view the podium with a jaundiced eye.

Mr. Michael, 68, died yesterday at his home in Uffing, Germany (near Munich), of complications from aplastic anemia. He occupied a special place in the hearts of Symphony and Opera players here. Never cynical or pompous, he was always full of the joy of making music. His lyrical gifts on the podium were equaled by a personality of such radiant kindness and optimism that Mr. Michael seemed to spread light wherever he went.

It was the recommendation of opera singer Dale Duesing, who knew Mr. Michael in Germany, that led to the conductor's first American engagement at Seattle Opera. Speight Jenkins, that company's general director, hired him to lead a 1984 "Tannhäuser" that is still affectionately remembered more than 20 years later. Mr. Michael's performance assured a long series of invitations to return to both Seattle Opera (including the Wagnerian "Ring" cycles in 1987 and 1995) and the Seattle Symphony, engagements that led in turn to a new phase of the conductor's career in America.

He conducted such top orchestras as Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Detroit and Los Angeles; his opera engagements included several seasons at New York's Metropolitan Opera, where he conducted Beethoven's "Fidelio" and Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman."

Mr. Michael was born in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, in 1937. Following his first prize in the first Cantelli Conducting Competition, in 1961, he became an assistant to legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan at the Vienna State Opera. Mr. Michael later conducted there and in other major opera and symphony houses throughout Europe, including performances with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Orchestra, Cologne and Hamburg Radio Orchestras, London Philharmonic, Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Rome's Santa Cecilia Orchestra. He was director of the Bremen Opera from 1970-78 and directed the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento from 1977-91.

In 1997, Mr. Michael was appointed music director of the Phoenix Symphony, following two seasons as principal guest conductor and artistic adviser. He held that post until the end of the 2003-2004 season, when his health did not permit him to continue. Mr. Michael and his wife, Brigitta, returned to the Bavarian countryside where they could be near their family of four children and 10 grandchildren. A dedicated teacher, he also taught master classes at Munich's Musikhochschule before retiring from teaching in 2000.

Mr. Michael's last appearance here, in a Seattle Symphony program in June of 2003, was met with particularly warm ovations. It was his first Seattle visit since his diagnosis of aplastic anemia in 1999, a diagnosis that gave the conductor a life expectancy of only a year and a half. When his illness was made public, the maestro received more than 70 cards and letters from Seattle musicians.

"What wonderful people!" Mr. Michael said then, in an interview prior to his performances. "I always have a special feeling for Seattle."

Seattle had a special feeling for Mr. Michael, too. So, of course, did the Phoenix Symphony, which is dedicating its opening weekend of concerts later this month to Mr. Michael.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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