Hans Vonk

Admired conductor and prolific recording artist
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The Independent Online

Illness forced the conductor Hans Vonk from the podium in the spring of 2002, ending an outstanding career just before his 60th birthday - a cruelly early end in a profession that can keep its participants active into their nineties.

Hans Vonk, conductor: born Amsterdam 18 June 1942; married Jessie Folkerts; died Amsterdam 29 August 2004.

Illness forced the conductor Hans Vonk from the podium in the spring of 2002, ending an outstanding career just before his 60th birthday - a cruelly early end in a profession that can keep its participants active into their nineties.

Vonk was born in Amsterdam, then under Nazi occupation, in 1942, into a musical family: his father was a violinist in the Concertgebouw Orchestra. But he died when Hans was only three, leaving his mother to raise him and his sister alone. Both children went on to study Law at the University of Amsterdam, but Hans, a gifted pianist, felt the pull of music and, ignoring his mother's objections, transferred to the Amsterdam Conservatory.

After two years of studying the piano, he began to be attracted to conducting; though a late starter, and despite receiving cold water from some of the staff, he persevered, and proved gifted enough to go on to study with Hermann Scherchen and Franco Ferrara, two of the most outstanding conductors of the day.

His first public concert came when he was 22. And his first professional appointment came two years later, in 1966, when he joined the Netherlands Ballet as conductor and répétiteur. The post helped shape his future in another way, too: it was here that he met Jessie Folkerts, an extrovert red-headed ballerina, German-born, raised in Australia. Their marriage lasted over 30 years, Jessie providing the perfect outgoing foil to Vonk's more introspective nature.

Vonk remained with the ballet for three years, soon adding an assistant conductorship at the Concertgebouw to his activities. His operatic début came with the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam in 1971, with Wolfgang Fortner's opera In seinem Garten liebt Don Perlimplin Belisa. He was beginning to become known abroad now, too: his US début, with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, came in 1974, and he served as Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic in London from 1976 to 1979.

Meanwhile, his domestic career was going from strength to strength, as conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in Hilversum (1973-79) and chief conductor of the Netherlands Opera (1976-85) and the Residentie Orchestra in The Hague (1980-91).

His guest appearances took him all over the world. He may not have invaded the headlines as often as more media-minded colleagues, but his music-making earned him admiration wherever he went. In Britain he worked with the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony and English Chamber Orchestras, and in America with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. In France he guested with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and in Norway with the Oslo Philharmonic. He returned to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and travelled to Japan and Australia.

One of Vonk's most prestigious appointments came in 1985, when - following in the footsteps of Wagner, Fritz Busch, Karl Böhm and Rudolf Kempe - he took up the directorship of the Staatskapelle and the Semper Opera in Dresden. But he found the heavy-handed interference of the Communist authorities difficult to bear. He was, for example, allowed to communicate with his musicians only at rehearsal, with the discussion limited to music.

The artistic results were superb - a 1985 recording of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier garnered universal praise for the brilliant playing Vonk obtained from his orchestra - but five years of political meddling were all he could take (he described it as "a very stressful period") and in 1991 he assumed the chief conductorship of the West German Radio Orchestra in Cologne, remaining until 1997.

Hans Vonk was also a prolific recording artist, earning particular praise for his work in the Austro- German symphonic repertoire, not least Bruckner and Mahler. The reaction of the American critic Jed Distler to his conducting of Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos was typical of the reviews he received:

Hans Vonk's predilection for well-drilled ensemble playing manifests itself via the marvellously aligned string tuttis in the Fourth's Adagio and in the rhythmic spring and enlivening accents he obtains in the "Emperor" concerto's Rondo. Orchestral textures are lean and transparent without compromising one iota of the Staatskapelle Dresden's tonal richness.

In 1996 Vonk was appointed to the post which was to crown his all-too-brief career: the chief conductorship of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. It was a partnership that generated respect, even love, on both sides. Vonk was not the glad-handing social twirler that American orchestras can sometimes expect their conductors to be; instead, he was a conscientious rehearser, working with his musicians ("They are a special kind of people and I am one of them", he once said) to perfect his interpretations and improve the standards of the playing.

He was only two years into the St Louis appointment when he was diagnosed as having Guillain-Barré syndrome, which enfeebles the muscles by removing the protective layer of myelin from the nerves. A course of treatment, reinforced by the constant and devoted care of his wife, allowed him to take up the baton again in 1989, but he suffered a relapse - and his doctors now realised they were unable to diagnose his neuromuscular affliction, which was not, in fact, exposing the nerves in his hands and feet but coating them, making them progressively weaker. From there, it spread inwards to the rest of his body.

The effects of the disease were made public in February 2002 when Vonk, conducting Barber's Medea's Meditation and Dance, found himself unable to turn the page of the score in front of him and had to be helped from the podium. He struggled on, giving his last performances - Mahler's Fourth Symphony - in May that year. At that point, knowing that he was too ill to serve the orchestra as he might wish, he bravely offered to resign; he was asked to remain as a consultant.

His recorded legacy stands as an indication of what he might have achieved over the years now denied him.

Martin Anderson