Sixten Ehrling

Conductor of famous perfectionism
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The Independent Online

The conductor Sixten Ehrling was renowned both for his encyclopaedic knowledge of music and for a temperament that gave short shrift to anyone falling below his own exacting standards.

Evert Sixten Ehrling, conductor: born Malmö, Sweden 3 April 1918; married Gunnel Lindgren (two daughters); died New York 13 February 2005.

The conductor Sixten Ehrling was renowned both for his encyclopaedic knowledge of music and for a temperament that gave short shrift to anyone falling below his own exacting standards.

Orchestral musicians would encounter the sharp side of his tongue if he felt they were playing below their best - but he didn't let audiences off the hook, either. On one occasion in 1988 that became part of Sweden's music lore, he was about to start conducting Bizet's Carmen in Gothenburg, when he was annoyed to find the douce Gothenburgers still wandering in and looking for their seats. He decided to teach them a lesson and began immediately. His comment in the next day's paper was unrepentant: "I'll teach that damned audience that they should be in their seats on time when I conduct." It cost him his contract.

But he was merely expecting them to show the music the respect of his own approach. The musicologist Per Skans reports that Ehrling

was legendary for his perfection, which assumed many different shapes, and in which he never spared himself, either. At the Stockholm Royal Opera, Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was among the works that he conducted a large number of times. Among the stage-manager's tasks was the exact timing - minutes and seconds - of every single performance of every opera. Once I was shown the book with these entries, a kind of logbook. I could see that the difference in total playing time between Ehrling's fastest and slowest performance of this opera was less than one minute.

Die Meistersinger is four hours long.

Ehrling's father, a Malmö banker, had ambitions that his son might follow him into his profession. But the young Sixten showed such ability at the keyboard that his father soon gave in and bought him a Steinway grand. It became obvious that the young man was a musical polymath: he studied violin, piano, organ, composition and conducting at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm between 1936 and 1939; in the latter year he was awarded the prestigious Jenny Lind Scholarship.

He began his career as a concert pianist - and he remained an enthusiastic pianist, also playing as an accompanist and in chamber music, throughout his life. It was as a répétiteur - a rehearsal pianist - that he joined the staff of the Royal Opera in Stockholm, making his conducting début there in 1940. In 1941 he spent a year in Dresden, studying conducting with Karl Böhm at the State Opera (Sweden was neutral in the Second World War) and, after the hostilities had ended, went to Albert Wolff in Paris for another period of study.

Back in Sweden, his career on the podium had taken off: he was appointed conductor in Gothenburg in 1942 and two years later was recalled to the Royal Opera. It was a concert performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring - then seen as a modernist redoubt rather than the orchestral bonne-bouche it now seems to have become - that put Ehrling on the map; it was to become one of his visiting cards.

Ehrling's chief conductorship at the Stockholm Royal Opera, from 1953 to 1960, is remembered as a golden age. His collaborations with the producer Göran Gentele - in Carmen, Berg's Wozzeck and Verdi's Un ballo in maschero - were especially admired, as was the premiere of Karl-Birger Blomdahl's opera Aniara in 1959. He so stamped his own authority on the orchestra that it acquired a popular nickname: the Sixtenska kapellet - "the Sixtenian Orchestra". His reputation was now spreading; before long he was to become the best-known Swedish conductor on the international circuit.

But, back home, Ehrling's perfectionism ruffled feathers, as he explained to the paper Aftonbladet in 1998:

At the Stockholm opera, they wanted me to apologise for the way I led the orchestra, which I refused. I moved to America instead.

He landed one of the prime orchestral posts in the United States, replacing the French conductor Paul Paray as musical director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1963, having first conducted them in 1961; he stayed there for a decade, conducting a total of 722 concerts, 24 of them containing world premieres.

During that time he had conducted Wagner's Ring cycle in New York, and it was that city which now became the focus of his activities, and his home. He was in charge of the conducting class at the Juilliard School from 1973, and also worked with the Denver and San Antonio symphony orchestras. Although he officially retired in 1987, from 1993 onwards he was chief conductor of the orchestras of the Manhattan School of Music and their music adviser.

Ehrling and Sweden had long since been reconciled: he was acknowledged as the country's most important conductor of the past half-century, and he was happy to return to work in his native land, conducting his last concert there in August last year.

Over the years Ehrling built up a substantial discography, including music by Beethoven, Berlioz, Sibelius, Stravinsky and Verdi. He recorded the composers of his adoptive America, Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions among them. Nor did he neglect his compatriots, with a widely admired account of the four symphonies of Sweden's first, and most radical, Romantic, Franz Berwald. His concert repertoire was enormous, the favourites including works by Debussy, Ravel and Respighi.

For all that Ehrling could be blisteringly blunt in rehearsal, he was a thoughtful and generous mentor to younger conductors, the better known including Myung-Whun Chung, Andreas Delfs, JoAnn Falletta and Andrew Litton. His technical proficiency remains the stuff of legend. Per Skans recalled one such story (only perhaps apocryphal):

Sixten Ehrling was almost never ill, but once he was taken to a nearby hospital to be examined because he suddenly had developed a high fever. He was ordered to lie down, and a nurse began to take his pulse. After two seconds, he made a jolt and rose, growling in an irritated voice: "SEVENTY-THREE!"

Martin Anderson