Sad news: A grand French maestro has died

Sad news: A grand French maestro has died


norman lebrecht

March 25, 2017

We have been informed of the death of Louis Frémaux, an estimable conductor who was principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1969 to 1978, and chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, 1979-1982.

Louis died at home on Monday. His death was reported the following day by a presenter on France Musique.

His decade in Birmingham, where he raised the orchestra’s profile with highly praised EMI recordings, ended unhappily with the departure of the general manager, Arthur Baker, and a players’ rebellion.

The double vacancy led to the appointment of Ed Smith as manager, aged 27, joined smartly by Simon Rattle, 25.

The rest is… well, you know.

We have fond memories of M. Frémaux.


  • Thomas Roth says:

    He was far greater than many of the more famous coductors.

  • Gerald Robbins says:

    Such sad news!! What a great loss. Louis Fremaux was a brilliant conductor and a wonderful collaborative partner for so many soloists, who had the privilege, as I did, of working with him. I recall with great pleasure, musically collaborating with Maestro Fremaux in the mid-1980’s with the City of Birmingham Orchestra and with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in concerti by Gershwin and Rachmaninoff. Truly, in the opinion of so many, he was a great Master, and will be sorely missed.

  • Martin says:

    In my opinion Fremaux was one of the greats and he did a lot for the CBSO. People tend to forget this today. Some minor controversy or other around his sudden departure from the CBSO tended to colour people’s opinion of him for a long time I think. I heard him many times in th U.K., firstly with the Bournemouth Symphony in 1965 (giving the British premiere of Dutilleux Second) and later with the CBSO. Every concert was memorable. When as a teenager I first started hearing the CBSO (when Hugo Rignold was in charge) they really were, by today’s standards, pretty dire. Fremauax did so much in raising their level of accomplishment. It is simply that he has been overshadowed by the likes of Rattle, Oramo and Nelsons (and now possibly Mirga too) that this wonderful artist is overlooked.

    • Stweart says:

      Well said Martin . He really began the upsurge.
      Simon is reputed to have said that when he took over they were the best French orchestra outside Montreal.

  • clarrieu says:

    He’s mostly remembered in France for his 10 years tenure with the Monte-Carlo orchestra…

  • Stweart says:

    To the CBSO”s eternal shame (and I’m one of their greatest fans) they never forgave him.
    He continued to live in Birmingham for many years and only once conducted at Symphony Hall – the NYO.
    A little of the gloss has gone from my orchestra!

    • Halldor says:

      You’ve got it precisely the wrong way around. Although a few older CBSO players continued to nurse resentments many years later, the CBSO made several attempts in subsequent years to make amends to Fremaux; he rejected all attempts at reconcilation. My understanding is that he felt intensely loyal to his friend Arthur Baker and could not forgive the way baker had been treated.

      The circumstances of his departure were anything but a ‘minor controversy’, and did severe and lasting damage to the organisation – though few who examine the archived evidence could really blame him for acting as he did. But it does explain why his tenure in Birmingham, along with its huge artistic achievements, has been the subject of a certain amount of collective amnesia. What followed his departure is the subject of much happier memories.

  • Halldor says:

    It’s also worth mentioning that Fremaux founded the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus; today possibly the UK’s finest symphonic chorus. It was his idea, and he personally auditioned some 500 singers to select its initial membership.

    As I and others have said elsewhere, the traumatic (and actually far from minor) controversy around his departure from the CBSO has affected his legacy, and probably stopped him working as much as (by rights) he should have done in the remaining four decades of his life. Our loss. The best way to appreciate his achievement today is to put aside any prejudices and simply listen to his recordings. As well as his passionate, lucid way with French repertoire (and he worked closely with both Poulenc and Ibert earlier in his career) there are his amazingly colourful and vibrant accounts of music by Walton and John McCabe – all supported by fantastically smart and vivid playing from the CBSO, who consistently played their socks off for him.

    I’ve never heard anyone in Birmingham dispute his artistic achievement. His relative eclipse can be attributed to non-musical factors – the way it all ended, and his misfortune in being succeeded by the phenomenon that was Rattle (who’d have overshadowed anyone). A good reason, at that time, to forget an episode that a lot of concertgoers and musicians in Birmingham alike wanted to forget. But there’s no reason to forget it now – we should celebrate a superb musician and (by all accounts) a courageous (he served in both the Resistance and the French Foreign Legion), brilliant and lovable man. I wish I’d heard him perform live. RIP.

    • Stweart says:

      Thanks Halldor. I attended many of his concerts and he certainly kicked off the orchestras rise.
      Pity his rejection of approaches wasn’t made more public.
      I’ve always understood that it was the “few older CBSO players” who were responsible for approaches not being made.

      • Halldor says:

        They were certainly a factor, but there were a good number of players and staff who would have welcomed a reconciliation, especially as years went on and the more recalcitrant of the old guard retired.

        But obviously, it was a very sensitive area and nothing would have been made public until it was all successfully resolved. Which it never was. People who knew him tell me he felt very badly betrayed by the players.

        • stweart says:

          I have a fond memory of the players cricket team trying to show him how to bat at a school playing field in Edgbaston.

          Whatever the rights and wrongs of the “walk out” we should remember his considerable legacy ! A fine conductor.

  • Peter Phillips says:

    My wife and I gave Louis Frémaux and his companion supper after he had conducted a concert with the BBCNOW in Swansea. He was proper, gently formal and utterly charming. When we offered to put them up overnight he declined in favour of driving up on to Gower and spending the night in his camper van. After he had conducted at the BBC studios in Llandaff the then Head of Music Wales, Huw Tregelles Williams, recounts that when he left the building he could smell chips being fried. It was LF in his camper van. Halldor rightly draws attention to Frémaux’s physical courage; apparently after being arrested he escaped from a German prison camp and joined the resistance. I believe that he held the Croix de Guerre. He was a great man and a great musician.

  • John Babb says:

    The post-event downgrading of the Fremaux years with the CBSO is very regrettable. The orchestra members I had contact with at that time, recognised the improvements he had brought to the orchestra. Whilst sound in much of the basic repertory, the glory of those years was the playing of the French repertoire, with opportunities to hear excellent interpretations of the Berlioz Requiem & Damnation of Faust , the complete Daphnis and Chloe and much more.

  • Peter Phillips says:

    Following the link in Thomas Roth’s post above will show that Warner are to reissue all Frémaux’s CBSO recordings in an Icon box in late April. Presto’s bio is good too, though I seem to recall that Frémaux also founded the Orchestre National in Lyon. Can anyone confirm that?

  • Sylvain Fremaux says:

    My father Louis Frémaux was movingly celebrated, eulogized, and buried today in Avaray, France. In answer to your question, in 1969 he was called by then French Culture Ministry’s director of music, Marcel Landowski to lead the newly reorganized Lyon Symphony, renamed Orchestre Philharmonic Rhône-Alpes, as part of a national reform of symphony orchestras that lead to the creation of dynamic new regional ensembles. It is to CBSO’s credit that my father eventually preferred it to the Lyon orchestra and moved to Birmingham to devote his attention and career to developing the CBSO and its new chorus. The rest is history.
    My father would not say much about the “controversy” that lead to his resignation ten years later. He did not feel right about incriminating or criticizing anyone. He preferred to move on. I am still wondering today what really happened. I may never know.
    Sylvain Fremaux, son.

    • stweart says:

      Thank you Sylvian
      Your farther will long be remembered as a very important and valued part of CBSO history !

    • Halldor says:

      A great artist and a much-loved and respected colleague. RIP.

    • carol everson says:

      Dear Sylvain:

      Thank you for your comments. As a former member of the CBSO, I found Maestro Fremaux excellent to work for and a wonderful conductor. He brought life and colour to the CBSO’s playing and transformed the orchestra into a good band. I am so sorry your father has passed away. I will always miss him.

    • Pat says:

      Sylvain, I am so sorry to hear of your father’s death back in March, I have only just found out the sad news. I was one of the founder CBSO Chorus members for 15 years (your father’s little baby!) and loved every minute of my time. Louix was a very special man to us ‘founders’ and knew every one of our names personally. We had no idea what was happening in the background and it was such a shock when we turned up for rehearsal one evening, to be told that he had left and we wouldn’t be seeing him again and we didn’t know why. I have to admit there were some tears from some of us, as he was a very special man to us all. Thank you Louix for the wonderful musical years we spent with you, it was a very special time of knowing you.

  • Tully Potter says:

    Sylvain Frémaux, please could you tell me a little about your father’s family life – wife, any other children and so on. I’m trying to write an obituary and nothing about his private life is mentioned.

  • Robert Russell says:

    Louis Fremaux made a splendid contribution to the musical life of Australia when he was Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony. I was fortunate to be able to attend many of his performances during his regime. He was always elegant and dapper in his demeanour and his stick technique seemed clear and precise. As has been noted he was outstanding in French repertoire, however, he conducted a wide range of works very successfully. I well remember a thrilling Walton No.1 and an immensely satisfying Mahler No.4. Already a fine ensemble because of Willem van Otterloo’s stewardship, the SSO further improved under Fremaux’s leadership. He will be fondly remembered as a truly outstanding musician.

  • Alan Caunce says:

    I, too, was saddened to hear of the death of Louis Fremaux – my favourite conductor.
    I attended my first concert with the CBSO in 1966 so saw Hugo Rignold, Harold Gray, Christopher Seaman et al. Soon came the arrival of Louis Fremaux who became immediately popular with audiences and began to do so much for the Orchestra.

    He became renowned for his preparation, his fine string playing and, of course, his rostrum presence – often leaving it with that leap into the air. He had the most expressive hands and the suave, dapper manner. He brought out a freshness and excitement in his pieces.

    I agree with everyone who says that Fremaux put the CBSO on the map, refining their playing, broadening their repertoire, making many highly – acclaimed recordings – many unsurpassed – and taking the Orchestra on those increasingly fashionable tours. His establishment of the CBSO Chorus with Gordon Clinton is the stuff of Birmingham’s musical legend.

    His out – of – town concerts were well worth travelling for! Newport, Cardiff, Swansea with BBC NOW and Lichfield.

    As a sometime ‘impressario’ the greatest compliment I could pay Louis was to invite him to conduct a concert in a Solihull music festival.(1989). A very memorable ‘sold – out’ event in the Chapel of Solihull School featured The Bournemouth Sinfonietta, Raphael Wallfisch with Louis conducting.

    After a dapper concert Louis often ended up in the camper van (GOV 67N) Already mentioned. Would it be ‘frying tonight’ or a gentler apple and cheese.

    Great recordings, memorable live performances and an exciting period in Birmingham’s musical history featuring that now first – rate orchestra. Thank you Louis for those years of musical brilliance.Enjoy the music where you are now.

    Alan Caunce (CBSO subscriber 1966 – 2006)
    (Artistic Director – Fishguard International Music Festival 2007 – 2013).

  • Val Lovett says:

    I was a season ticket holder in the early 70’s. The Thursday night concerts were constantly sold out and there was a buzz in the musical world of Birmingham. Louis Fremaux had an adoring following of concertgoers. He introduced the audience to a wide range of music which was increasingly appreciated. His rostrum presence was never flamboyant but always in control demonstrating great intuition and musicality.

    Then in summer of 1973 came an announcement of a chorus to be formed. I applied, and to add a little more to Pat’s information, was granted an audition which were held in the Birmingham and Midland Institute. The criteria was 45 years of age maximum and able to read music plus a commitment to regular concerts. The panel was Louis Fremaux, Arthur Baker the General Manger at the time and Gordon Clinton Pricipal of the Birmingham School of Music. At the first rehersal there were perhaps 60 of us, about 250 had been auditioned so we felt part of something very special. Gordon was the chorus master, each weekly rehearsal was hard work and a master class in choral singing. Additional choristers joined as the auditions continued. The ladies dresses were purple which was a break from the traditional black.

    The first concert was 31st January 1974. We had been well prepared by Gordon – Berlioz Damnation of Faust. Final rehersals with Louis showed he was very pleased with us.The concert hall was sold out. We started with La Marseillaise. The spontaneous applause and shouts of bravo did not suprise maestro Fremaux, he just stood very poised waiting for the audience to settle. The English National anthem was next and again we had to wait for the audience to sit down and settle. The concert was a great sucess and a never to be forgotton night for the chorus. This was the start of a whirlwind of concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, recording at Abbey Road Studios and at Birmingham University Great Hall, many concerts in out of town venues. Maestro Fremaux was a geat showman, the Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts calls for four sections of brass in the Dies irae, two were placed within the orchestra. The other two were within the audience in the circle seating area. The audience were mesmerised, parts were played at double forte which nearly lifted the roof of the Town Hall.

    With the sad departure of Maestro Fremaux the planned recording of Brittens War Requiem was cancelled as was the appearance at that years proms.

    I can only confirm what Pat said, Louis was very special to us, together with Gordon they gave us amateur singers an exciting insite into a professional musical world. Thank you Louis for the many hours of wonderful music you gave to the audiences and the fabulous recording you have left us with.

    • Pat Burford says:

      In reply to you Val Lovett, reading your comment, I can picture and remember everything you wrote about our debut concert in Birmingham and London, the write-ups in the local and national newspapers the following days and feeling that as amateurs, this was to be the beginning of our new life in the professional world of concert music.

      It would be lovely if there was a memorial service, or something of that nature, for the wonderful contribution Louis gave to Birmingham and I am convinced it would be well attended by many friends who personally knew him and loved him.

  • Sylvain Frémaux says:

    I have read the latest comments about my father, the late Louis Frémaux. I passed on your wonderful testimonies to my three siblings. We are extremely grateful for all the memories. I am sure that you are aware of the new Warner release of the CBSO and Chorus recordings in a single box set. Very moving and impressive. We can’t thank you enough for your support, dedication and participation in the chorus, the audience, the orchestra and the press during the Frémaux years…
    Sylvain Frémaux, son of Louis.