Dennis Burkh: Conductor whose recording of 'Rhapsody In Blue' sold more than a million copies

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The Independent Online

It was not until 1991, and his appointment as chief conductor and artistic director of the Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra in Ostrava in the Czech Republic, that the work of the American conductor Dennis Burkh began to attract the attention of the record-buying public. Burkh, who has died aged 72, was then on the cusp of his seventh decade, and well into his sixth as a practising musician. His late recognition was well earned.

Burkh was born in San Francisco to a Polish mother and Russian father who, family legend had it, invented the name Burk on their arrival in America; his real name remained a mystery. "Burkh" came about when posters for a concert in Italy early in his career added the extra letter; Dennis liked the new version and retained it.

He showed precocious musical ability, taking piano lessons at fourand showing such rapid progress that only a year later he made his concerto début with the San FranciscoSymphony, playing Haydn. The attractions of conducting soon usurpedthe piano, however, and at 17 he was the youngest ever student (and the first American) to be admitted to a major conductors' course in the Netherlands; he also attended a course in Siena.

His feet were now on a European ladder and he slowly moved up it, taking up the secondary positions that used to give young conductors a thorough training. He was assistant to Ferdinand Leitner at the Stuttgart State Opera (1957–60) and to Antonio Votto at La Scala (1960–66).

He returned to the United States in 1966 to take up a teaching position at Michigan State University, wherehe remained until 1983. While there, he founded the Opera Company of Greater Lansing, expanding the repertoire he was able to conduct. He also made frequent guest appearances with orchestras in Europe and Asia; a Fulbright Fellowship in 1978–79 allowed him to spend a year in Seoul. In 1984 he took up a teaching appointment at the University of Massachusetts; while there, he directed the prestigious Five College Orchestra.

The British composer Gerard Schurmann found Burkh to be a faithful champion: "I personally owe him a considerable debt of gratitude for his interest in my music, and the performances he gave, until his retirement, of every one of my orchestral works. He had seemingly endless energy and drive, so much so that I usually needed calming down when he stayed with us. He would jokingly offer to bring 'anti-Dennis pills' in the form of tranquillisers whenever we were going to be together."

Michael Griffith, a conducting student at Michigan State, felt it was "...too bad he couldn't record much opera, which I thought was even better than his symphonic repertoire. He was wonderfully musical, leading and following singers with great depth of feeling and insight. His Traviata was incredible."

The recordings that brought Burkh his late fame were made for a number of labels. Naxos recorded him in Vieuxtemps' violin concertos; Arabesque in music by the American composer Michael Whalen; and Centaur in a programme of arias by operatic rogues and villains, and two discs with the Norwegian violinist Ragin Wenk-Wolff of concertos by Kvandal, Söderlind, Chausson, Hubay and Röntgen.

Elsewhere he recorded music by Beethoven, Dvorák, Fauré, Franzetti, Janácek, Ravel, Reger, Schumann, Strauss and Weber. Burkh's most successful recording, for the Czech label Opus, coupled Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris: it sold over a million copies and the gold disc he was awarded was proudly mounted on the wall of his retirement home near Chicago.

Wenk-Wolff enjoyed making music with him, he said: "With the natural musical ease of someone who has had his precocious gifts readily available at his fingertips since a young child, Dennis had the unadorned confidence to let the music flow by itself. This made working together very pleasurable, without exterior strains or personal pride interfering."

Burkh was already suffering from the Parkinson's disease that would soon end his career. However, said Wenk-Wolff, he "led our recording sessions with humour and jokes, and with one arm while the other was rendered useless by Parkinson's. He used his illness frequently as a vehicle to elicit laughs, at the same time serving to make everyone more comfortable with it, including himself."

After their last recording session, Burkh gave Wenk-Wolff his baton "to keep for him". He knew he wasn't going to need it any longer.

Dennis Burkh, conductor: born San Francisco 5 October 1935; four times married (one son, one daughter); died Chicago 13 July 2008.

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