Obituary: Alberto Bolet

THE NAME of the Cuban-born pianist Jorge Bolet is a household item wherever music is discussed; that of his elder brother, the conductor Alberto Bolet, is less common currency, though Alberto was a professional musician for three-quarters of the century, devoting particular energy to the promotion of Spanish and Latin American music.

Alberto Bolet was born in Havana and played the violin from childhood, stowing away on a ship to Spain at the age of 16 to escape from his father's insistence that he become a lawyer. Between 1922 and 1924 he continued his violin studies in Madrid, then in Paris (in which cities he was music director in a number of theatres) and was briefly in Budapest before forming a trio that toured across Europe and North Africa in the later 1920s and early 1930s.

His move back to the western hemisphere came in 1932, when he went to San Francisco to set up a chamber orchestra; soon afterwards he was called to Hollywood by a compatriot, the composer Ernest Lecuona, a kind of Cuban George Gershwin, who was under contract to a number of studios to provide film-scores.

In 1936 Bolet returned to Havana to found and organise CMZ, Cuba's first classical radio station, where he acted as music director and conductor from 1937 to 1943, founding and running both the first radio symphony orchestra in Cuba, which gave more than 300 concerts on air in the first three years, and the Trio de la Habana, with the pianist Alberto Falcn and cellist Alberto Roldn (brother of the better-known, but shorter-lived, composer Amadeo Roldn). Bolet was also now taking conducting lessons from Erich Kleiber, who, in self-imposed exile from Nazi Germany, had emigrated to South America and at this point was chief conductor of the Orquestra Filarmnica de Havana.

Bolet's next conducting position came in 1948 when he was asked to head the Ballet Espanol de Ana Maria, with which he toured all over South America for three years. It was a high-profile organisation: the sets of one of its productions, Rodolfo Halffter's La madrugada del Panadero, were designed by no less a figure than Salvador Dali. His experience with the Ballet Espanol, and his energetic concurrent work with the Havana Chamber Orchestra, gave Bolet the stepping-stone to his most important appointment to date when, in 1951, he became music director of the Havana Philharmonic, a post he held until January 1959.

During that period he gave concerts with some of the leading soloists of the day: his brother Jorge, of course, but also including Jascha Heifetz, Jose Iturbi, Andre Kostelanetz, Victoria de los Angeles, Andres Segovia, Pilar Lorengar, Alicia de Larrocha and Nicanor Zabaleta. His repertoire liberally embraced contemporary composers, many of whom became friends, Stravinsky, Ginastera and Villa-Lobos among them; and he made a particular point of presenting modern Cuban music, not least that of Edgardo Martn, Julin Orbn and Aurelio de la Vega, whose Overtura a una Farsa Seria later became one of Bolet's handful of recordings.

Bolet's time in Cuba came to an end when a librarian friend tipped him off that he had been blacklisted by Castro's revolutionary government and was earmarked for arrest. He persuaded the BBC to offer him a recording contract, which provided him with the means of exit, his flight turning him unintentionally into a cultural icon and symbol of rejection of the Communist regime. Though he was soon followed by his family, his stay in England was brief, and he began a peripatetic series of engagements around the world, first as director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and as a guest conductor in Sydney, in Madrid and Valencia.

It was Spain that was next to hold him when, for six years from 1962, he took over the helm of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, where the soprano Montserrat Caballe and violinist Salvatore Accardo were among the young musicians whose careers he nurtured. He became a regular visitor to most of the London orchestras, conducting also in Vienna, Norway, Germany and the United States. He took up his last permanent post in 1968, with the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra in California, building it in his 10 years there from a community orchestra to one with fully professional status.

Though Bolet's achievement was rarely of the headline-grabbing variety, his solid, persistent support of the music that he cared about made audiences all over the world aware of it. He was still standing up for it as recently as last year when, at the age of 93, he was honoured with a concert in a Cuban-American festival before an audience of 15,000 Californians and presented with the Cuban Palm Award - one of the many national and international honours he received in recognition of his accomplishments in conducting and in music in general.

He was also a practised talker about music, and wrote a couple of books - a History of Chamber Music and, less predictably, How to Play the Castanets.

Martin Anderson

Alberto J. Bolet, conductor: born 10 September 1905; married 1950 Rosa Suarez (two sons, one daughter); died Teaneck, New Jersey 10 November 1999.

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