Memories of Maestro Fricke


Photo Credit: Anastasia Chernyavsky

Since the passing of our beloved former Music Director, Heinz Fricke, the orchestra felt it would be fitting to share our favorite memories of him. Below are some stories and recollections from current and former orchestra members and staff at WNO.

"Maestro Fricke...
I miss you…
Miss making music together, from Mozart to Puccini, from Verdi to Wagner…
One time you said: “ I have conducted more then 180(!) operas. Can you name that many?”
Well, I still cannot. And I am still in awe…
Miss drinking together, from vodka in the opera orchestra lounge, to champagne after the first act of Die Fledermaus (yes, we did, because you insisted!), to numerous beers, after performances during the Japan tour…
(Hope it was “politically correct”, but on the other hand - I don’t really care)
After playing Tosca in Japan you said: “ I remember conducting this opera with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi, and Franco Corelli. That was… interesting…” 
A living legend is no longer with us.
Your stories about playing with both David and Igor Oisrakh, Leonid Kogan…
Your memories of your distinguished mentors - Hermann Abendroth, Erich Kleiber and Franz Konwitschny… What a legacy!
How lucky we all were to have such an unforgettable experience! Did we realize it? I am sure we all did!
The sound of our orchestra in Die Walkure (page 75, to be specific) is a memory that still gives me goosebumps and brings tears of joy to my eyes…
All there is left - your famous line: “ I hope for the future!”
I miss you, Maestro Fricke…
We all miss you."
-Zino Bogachek, Violin

Zino Bogachek (left) and Oleg Rylatko (far right) with Mo. Fricke

"When I think about Mo. Fricke, one of his many abilities comes to my mind first. It is an ability to create a very particular atmosphere of collaboration with the orchestra. Over and over again, this atmosphere had enabled soloists, as well as entire sections of the orchestra, to perform his very distinctive musical interpretation as it would be our own. It did make all of us play for him with conviction, enthusiastically following his direction while giving to him our very best every time. From Mozart to Wagner, from Puccini to Strauss, his interpretations were always powerful and convincing, touching every soul in the orchestra pit and audience alike." -Oleg Rylatko, Concertmaster

"Maestro Fricke built the excellent orchestra we have today - by hiring fine players, by his technical mastery and particularly with his wonderful musicality. Additionally he seemed to have musical appreciation and affection for the viola section and me personally (the last possibly comic relief). He gave me the opportunity to perform a solo with our Concertmaster and the orchestra on stage in the Concert Hall.  I grew as a musician and player under what was for me gentle but firm tutelage. When he led us in “Der Rosenkavalier” it was a heavenly moment in my musical life.  I will never forget it.  For all this I am eternally grateful." -Shelley Coss, Assistant Principal Viola

Photo Credit: Karin Cooper

"The first opera I played as principal harp at the WNO was Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, with Maestro Fricke conducting. What a great introduction to opera that was!  I remember being struck by how fond of him the players clearly were, how respectful and happy to have him.  Of course, that was quite early in his tenure—I think it was his second season—so we were still in the “honeymoon” phase.  But years later, towards the end of his run, the orchestra still had that sense of great affection and respect for him, coupled with dismay that his age and infirmity were preventing him from coming to DC to conduct. And I feel there was a consensus among us that no matter what we were playing, we always sounded our best with him on the podium.

Fricke relished that camaraderie, and the orchestra’s obvious affection for him—he was always the last to leave an orchestra party, and he liked to come into the lounge and the pit before performances and rehearsals and chat with his players—though we often had no idea what he was saying!  The Maestro was a bit of a “low talker”, so that fact, coupled with his thick accent, could make him difficult to understand. I once ran into him backstage with my mom, who was visiting and had just seen an opera performance. She of course complimented him profusely, and he replied with what we thought was a comment indicating his satisfaction with his new harpist.  My mom said something like: “Oh, we like her too!” to which Fricke replied “Thank you very much!”—leaving us to wonder what, if anything, had been communicated!

I also remember a performance of Tristan und Isolde—a real challenge for a harpist since there is a lot of sitting around waiting, and not playing.  During one performance I somehow spaced out and missed an entrance—fortunately not a significant one, like the famous Tristan chord, but still I was horrified at my gaffe.  Shamefaced I went to his room during the intermission to apologize.  The minute he opened the door and looked at my face he began to laugh! He gave me a hug and sent me on my way.

My first season was the last, or one of the last, in which the orchestra presented a free onstage concert. I got a call from our principal flutist Adria one night telling me that the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto had been programmed, along with several other works that would showcase individual members of the orchestra, demonstrating the true pride he took in us.  That was an incredibly exciting experience for me, and a  great honor considering that I had only been a member for a few months at that time.  The termination of those concerts was a great disappointment to him I think. While he could be stern, and certainly lost his temper from time to time, I always thought of him as a benevolent presence on the podium, and he frequently shared his feelings of pride in the orchestra with us. I think for him we were a kind of a second chance, after his forced retirement in East Germany, and I believe it was a relationship that was truly beneficial for all parties.  We have already been missing him for many seasons, of course, but the news of his death is sad indeed." 
-Susan Robinson, Principal Harpist

"The first opera I played with Maestro Fricke was Verdi’s Simone Boccanegra. There’s a scene near the beginning that opens with a lovely viola melody and as I practiced it I wondered how Fricke would phrase it. When we got to it in rehearsal he showed us with a few clear gestures exactly how he wanted it shaped. The thing is, when we played it again a few minutes later, he shaped it completely differently. I don’t think he ever had us play that melody the same way twice, and he did it without ever saying a single word. At the end of the phrase he would smile at us with the knowledge that we had made music together." -Uri Wassertzug, Viola

Photo Credit: Anastasia Chernyavsky

"His beats were so communicative there was very little need for words. The information of articulations, dynamics and subdivisions were all there. This saved a lot of rehearsal time and eliminated much stress over tempi, ensemble, dynamics and musical interpretation. He emphasized that down beats should always be down. Each beat of his pattern looked different. These elements contributed to his beats appearing to be clear no matter from which angle the players looked. He had the ability to pin-point exactly which player was off among the 70 to 90 players in the orchestra. One image that comes to mind is how he brought the "carriage" of all the players together in a swooping gesture. One cannot appreciate Maestro Fricke's conducting without mentioning his sense of esthetics. It was of elegance and warmth. Never a direct sound. No matter how many other conductors we had between his appearances, we immediately went to that sound he emanated from the podium." -Xi Chen, Violin

"With the arrival of Maestro Heinz Fricke, the KCOHO began its ascent into the fine musical ensemble it is today. We couldn’t have had a more gifted, experienced and humane person on the podium. We owe Martin Feinstein, the first Kennedy Center Executive Director, a debt of gratitude for bringing Maestro Fricke to us, and I feel so lucky to have had the benefit from working with such a fine musician during Maestro’s time here." -Evelyn Harpham, Former Violist

Mo. Fricke with Adria Sternstein Foster

"Heinz Fricke was a true maestro and musician of the highest caliber. This orchestra was very lucky to have shared so many years of music making with him. I always thought how extraordinary it was that he had studied conducting with Erich Kleiber, and that we were experiencing a tradition and wisdom passed down from generations. Fricke's conducting technique was textbook - an absolutely clear beat (never any need to write in one's part whether a passage was in 2 or 4 for example) with a minimum of fuss and subtle but meaningful gestures that conveyed everything you needed to know. He also carried with him a "Fricke" sound. As soon as he started conducting somehow the strings became warm and the winds sounded round. The sound of the orchestra magically blossomed.

Among his other accomplishments Fricke was a champion trotter (or harness) racer in Berlin. I think there must be a connection between his conducting and his horse racing. To manage a horse well requires a sensitivity to the animal as well as firmness of control. I would describe his conducting the same way. He was able to manage the large scale forces of opera with complete mastery while at the same time giving the singers and musicians enough leeway or "reins" (if you will) to do their part. You felt as if you were in good hands, and he was sensitive enough to adjust, foresee and manage any slight blips along the way. 

His face was a window into the character and emotional content of the music. I'll never forget his expression  in the opening bars of Elektra. As he walked through the orchestra up to the podium he looked dead serious - no smiles, because he was already in character like a great actor. He was already primed to conduct the searing Agamemnon motif that opens the opera. The look in his eyes conveyed fierce intensity as he prepared the 1st downbeat of the hour and 45 minute roller coaster ride we were about to begin. We did two productions of Elektra with him and my favorite was the one with Eva Marton. The combination of Marton and Fricke was incredibly exciting and she absolutely adored him. To be a part of those performances was simply...thrilling. 

The pairing of Fricke and Placido Domingo also created some incredible musical moments. Queen of Spades stands out - I was swept away by the music every night. I remember Parsifal, Die Walkure, and Otello with them as affecting and inspired - the kind of musical experience you wish you could bottle and replay for ever. Mozart was also transcendental with Fricke. Strauss, Wagner and Mozart were his specialties. Some said that his Verdi and Puccini didn't sound "Italian" enough. Whether it did or not never bothered me - we were making music and the orchestra always sounded good. 
Lastly, he was a warm, friendly person. He came to every orchestra party and I remember driving him out to Chris Tranchitella's farm for our annual orchestra picnic. He had a good sense of humor and even conducted our former bass clarinetist Steve Bates playing the bagpipes at one of those events. He touched the lives of so many. I am grateful to have known him."
-Adria Sternstein Foster, Principal Flute

Photo Credit: Anastasia Chernyavsky

"He was one of the last direct links to the great late romantic German tradition.  Doing Wagner under him was like watching a seasoned captain take a huge ship out of port to sea.  It was a thrill unequaled in my experience by anyone.  And withal, his command was easy and sure.  You always knew it would be a good show; never routine. Beethoven, Wagner, and Strauss under him has been the most deeply satisfying chapter of my career." -John Lagerquist, Flute & Piccolo

"A clear, a wonderful gesture with two beautiful hands shaping, creating sound and always making music. Deep facial expressions in performance, that provided a view into the drama to the musicians. A huge connection. Maestro, thank you for many unforgettable performances and your inspiration that took us through them all. Your vision and sound will always stay with us." -Ignacio Alcover, Cello

“Maestro Fricke was a wonderful musician/conductor. Through minimal motion and intense rehearsals, he inspired a high level of performance from our musicians. Performing Wagner operas under his leadership was especially moving for me.”  -Dori Robbins, former Principal Second Violin

"My first show with Mo Fricke was Ariadne auf Naxos here at The Washington Opera during the Eisenhower season of 93-94. I was one of the pianists on the show and played the (very out of tune) harmonium in the pit. He would always cringe when I played a chord because the poor ramshackle instrument dated back from the Punic Wars (pre-Dorati NSO). The first music rehearsal was in RR 1 in the Opera House at 10 am on a Monday. He had just gotten off a plane, had no score, stood with the singers halfway across the room and started beating, so I started playing and by the first break I was his "co-conductor". He insisted that Betty Bullock and I play all his shows. So I went from being a guest to being on the full-time staff. Roman Terlecky had a cast party at his house during the run and somewhere there is a picture of the Maestro in Kathleen Seegar's big fur coat. We referred to him as Mrs. Brezhnev. Certainly the highlight of those early years with the Maestro was the Rosenkavalier we did in the Fall of '95. It had a wonderful cast, Helen Donath, Jean Piland, Janet Williams and Eric Halvorson. The orchestra played stunningly and the show was a huge hit. I will never forget the opening of Tristan; time stopped still. Even the brief string passage that opens Simon Boccanegra sounded as if the notes were being formed in mid-air without the encumbrance of time or space. He had a very clear yet amazingly expressive beat that created its own world in which both stage and pit intertwined with seeming effortlessness.

He had a million stories as one can imagine after all those years in the theater. He had worked with virtually all the important artists from the East and some from the West. He was allowed to leave the East from time to time but it cost him his job teaching conducting since the government did not want him to possibly contaminate the students with Western ideas he may have picked up along the way. A friend of his mentioned to me once that Maestro would have happily immigrated to this country but that his wife wished, rather, to stay in Germany.
He had also conducted Rosenkavalier in San Diego I think in '93. His wife, a life-long Northern German, remarked  that there were 'too many flowers and too much sun" in Southern California. Deutschland ist immer grau. He mentioned once a production of Elektra he conducted with Nilsson, Rysenek and Varnay, die drei alte Damen. Nilsson apparently chewed him out saying "young boy, the faster you go the less I can sing". He never forgot that! The piece he found most difficult to conduct was The Nose of Shostakovich. He claimed to have conducted at least 1000 performances of Carmen. Ja, why not.

Once I got put on the podium at an Orchestra tech of Tristan. He wanted to hear in the house how the miking of the back stage chorus sounded. Well, within about 4 bars my baton went flying into the house behind me. We didn't find it until the next night. But the following morning I arrived at my desk to find laying there one of his own personal batons. When I saw him I thanked him. He replied, Ja, in Dresden I lost the baton so much they called me the "Stock Meister".Stock Meister indeed. Rest in peace dear Maestro." -Steven Gathman, WNO Chorusmaster

Mo. Fricke (left) with Michelle Kim (violin), Michael Rossi (trumpet), and Placido Domingo

"Shortly after Maestro Fricke arrived as Music Director, we had an orchestra party after one of the performances. We were coming out of a difficult period with the management, and the party was partly to celebrate being back at work. Maestro Fricke made a brief speech, and then held out an envelope, saying it was "for the next party". As the orchestra committee treasurer, I took the envelope and thanked him, but did not open it, since there was obviously some money in it and I did not want to be counting the money in public. I put it in my coat pocket and forgot about it.  When I got home and started to take my coat off, I thought, "oh, yes, the envelope", opened it up, and almost fell over. Inside were ten $100 bills - "for the next party".

During any of the major Strauss or Wagner operas, Dover scores were ubiquitous, lying next to chairs in the rehearsal room, not just in the winds, but in all the string sections as well. At one performance party, Maestro Fricke asked "How many have purchased the score?". Most of the orchestra raised their hands. Maestro Fricke nodded and smiled, and said proudly "In Germany it is not so".

In the media, there are frequent references to "Fricke hired x number of new players". This is certainly true, but to those of us who were there at the beginning, the really memorable thing was that the orchestra sounded much better right away. With no new players at all. Nor was that new sound generated by fear. It was in his gesture. There was always room to play the rhythm, but it was not slow. I've never experienced that with anyone else." -Tim Macek, Violin

"I arrived at WNO at about the same time as Maestro Fricke, and sang small roles in many productions during his tenure at the Kennedy Center. He made me a better singer than I perhaps had any right to be.  He had an amazing instinct to know when to challenge and push me to do better, and when to let the reins loose for me to grow into understanding a role at my own pace, perhaps as he did with his horses in harness racing. We spoke often about his harness racing…I had grown up on a farm, and at each year’s county fair, we had harness races that were the highlight of fair week.  What was most impressive about Maestro Fricke was his amazing awareness during a performance. I would be on stage and things would be going along well, and he would barely acknowledge that I was singing. He would be making small gestures to keep things on track and delighting in how the orchestra was playing.  But when I got anxious about an entrance or would be unsure about a tempo, I would stare down at him, and he was always already completely present to me, having somehow anticipated my moment of need. With a gently raised finger and a deep presence in how he looked at me, he would bring me back in line, and then the twinkle in his eye would let me know all was well again."-Robert Baker, tenor

"Maestro Fricke often stopped in the KCOHO library before orchestra reads to hang up his coat before heading down the hall to the rehearsal room. But he would quickly return, having forgotten his glasses in the coat pocket. I began to remind him each day ("Maestro, your glasses!"), and it became a bit of a ritual for us. It seemed to amuse him, and I always enjoyed seeing him smile." -Shelley R. Friedman, WNO Librarian

"In a rehearsal for an aria concert, Fricke described the tempo and sentiment of the music by putting his hand in his pocket and whistling. He didn't need words to convey his concept of the work. His hands and gestures were succinct and steady. There was no question about where his downbeat would be to place a pizzicato. As both the orchestra librarian and, on occasion, a double bassist for the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, I enjoyed working on his concept of a show. Whether it be Wagner or Puccini, he wanted the best from all of those involved in the production and succeeded in doing so by example." - Sara Baguyos, Orchestra Librarian, 2001-2004.

Mo. Fricke with Lora Ferguson (right)

"When Fricke conducted us at his first rehearsal of "Flying Dutchman" in 1992, he looked around the orchestra and commented in his German accent "... a lot of women", in such a way that we women felt he was not pleased about it. We were one of the first American orchestras he conducted and he was unaccustomed to seeing so many female instrumentalists, particularly wind players. He adapted very quickly  after that first comment and many, if not most, of his eventual hires were women. I can't remember what the occasion was, but Fricke contributed a $1000 check to one of our parties!" -Lora Ferguson, Assistant Principal Clarinet

"Fricke hired me in 2001. I will remember him as a fierce advocate for the orchestra itself, apart from the opera company. Every rehearsal he worked on improving the quality of the group. He insisted on precise ensemble playing. He would be beside himself, turning in circles on the podium, if he heard what he considered poor or sloppy fundamentals. I would not describe him as warm, but he was quick to smile after he put down his baton. His leadership is missed." -Steve Dunkel, Bass Trombone

Mo. Fricke "conducting" Steve Bates on bagpipes

"It seems that I was just thinking of Fricke a day or two ago, wondering just how he was doing. You may remember that I had found a print of a trotter horse with rider (the event he competed in  in Germany). We all signed it. It was Charlie's idea to sign it on the front. Fricke was quite affected by the gift. He said about his victories there : "they hate me in Berlin". He could only be so intimate with players even though he really had great affection for us at heart. In a meeting with the artistic committee, he said that the conductor can not be a friend with an orchestra member. Out in the hall I would see him with his friends and he did not nod or acknowledge me as I went past. Nevertheless, our showing up at his dress rehearsal for the National Symphony put the shoe on the other foot. He felt supported by us and said, "why you here"? And although he had close friends, the closeness achievable between conductor and players is in its own way not be matched by most any other relationship except for immediate family or another musician friend. As time passes I realize that the personal distance between such a conductor and we players is more comprehensible to me now. The musical gift that he bestowed grows with the years. His insight into Mozart and Wagner represented a life time of study and experience. We all a bit younger are still comprehending the nature of those composers and catching up to his understanding as it were. Thus, after he left us, I would like to think that he knew that we would do well by him in his absence and beyond the scope of his time with us here. His interpretation of Mozart particularly stands out in my memory. It is as if he was able to put together in a performance the most perfect example of musical perfection ever achieved by a human [Mozart] by not hampering it at all. Comparing composers is odious, how can any be better than Bach or Beethoven? But nevertheless, my memory of his Mozart was as if this perfect musical structure just sat there in space when Fricke was doing a Mozart opera. For me this means that the hope of perfection of technique would give me a fighting chance to address the challenge of playing Mozart-a gift from Fricke. Also, I was wondering why he seemed unique among conductors (with that easy firmness).  The answer lies with the fact that greatness always reveals the particularity of the individual. But perhaps because he was a humble person and less prominent than Masur or Von Karajan, and heading up a less than famous orchestra, one might underestimate his standing among the conducting greats. But we know better and see now how fortunate we were." -Steve Bates, former Bass Clarinetist of WNO

"Maestro Fricke’s appointment as Music Director of the KCOHO in 1993 was a moment of elation for members of the orchestra. We had been without leadership for too many years and even when we did have an active music director, we felt as though we were not a top priority, to say the least. It was immediately obvious that would change because Maestro Fricke needed us and we needed him. It was also a time that marked the end of difficult labor negotiations, new hopes and aspirations, and, greater stability for the orchestra. With his arrival, the audition system became implemented once again – significant, as there were several vacancies to be filled. It became immediately apparent that we were going to become an orchestra with unity of purpose, striving to become not just a group of musicians but an orchestra, deserving of respect. 
Maestro grew to love the orchestra and the people in the orchestra. His rehearsals were totally meaningful as he always began by focusing on minutiae in the overtures to operas, demanding precision and exacting musicianship that would then translate to the remainder of the music. He communicated everything with his baton technique and his body language. His facial expressions and hands told us everything we needed to know. He was not particularly fluent in the English language.  Anyone would find it difficult to learn a new language at the age of 65! However, he did learn what was necessary and to this day, musicians are fond of quoting some of his favorite phrases – “What is?” “Not important!” He did not waste time in rehearsals with talking, as so many conductors are prone to do.

"There were many times when Maestro Fricke expressed great frustration over the “new to him” systems which prevailed – regulations to be followed for rehearsals, administrative decisions which hampered his ability to do things that would ultimately lead to better music making, and, audition procedures which were not what he was accustomed to. However, the importance of making music always took precedence and ultimately won him over.

He felt it was important to have camaraderie with the members of the orchestra – to be a presence in the Musicians’ Lounge before performances to offer encouragement. He encouraged having parties and always attended when possible. He never failed to give us a “thumbs up” prior to a performance. He was a small man with a big heart and a huge talent, which he shared unstintingly with orchestral musicians, singers and the music staff of the WNO.
The maestro’s demeanor was so focused and yet so effortless. Music flowed from his very being and consequently, all who came under his direction played and sang better. He knew exactly how to breathe with us and we with him. He knew the appropriate tempo for each and every passage. If he swept through it in a manner where notes were unplayable, that was an indication that the music was just for effect and that individual notes were not so important. Phrases were beautifully shaped and led to an overall concept of the music. His Mozart, Wagner and Strauss set a standard by which all other performances of that same music would be judged.

Another attribute of Maestro Fricke’s was that he knew how to lead his singers without being a dictator. He knew what they needed from him and he gave it to them, all the while remaining at the helm of the production. He had the respect of all without demanding it because ultimately, everything was about the music and how that could best be presented in order to envelope the audience in an evening of wonderful opera.
For me, Maestro Fricke represents a pinnacle in a lifetime of making music. I absolutely loved working with and for him. What a gift! - to be so fortunate as to have the opportunity to perform with him. We continue to miss him – something that I do not expect to ever change for those who had the unique opportunity to make music with this genuinely exceptional person, a man deserving of the title, Maestro!"
-Meg Thomas, Violin