Sir Jeffrey Tate: Conductor with spina bifida dies at 74

Sir Jeffrey receiving his knighthood in 2017Image copyright PA
Image caption Sir Jeffrey was knighted six weeks ago for his services to British music overseas

The respected classical conductor Sir Jeffrey Tate has died at the age of 74, his agency has confirmed.

Sir Jeffrey, who was born with spina bifida, was the principal conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Opera House in the 1980s.

He recently worked in Germany and was knighted in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to British music overseas.

Sir Jeffrey, who had curvature of the spine and a paralysed left leg, would conduct while sitting on a tall stool.

He has featured as a guest conductor with almost every major orchestra and opera house in the world.

Since 2007, Sir Jeffrey has been the chief conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra and is recognised as one of the foremost interpreters of German music.

He received his knighthood from Prince William at an investiture ceremony in London on 19 April.

‘Accidental’ career

Sir Jeffrey, who went to school in Farnham in Surrey, turned to conducting at 27 – after studying medicine at Cambridge and beginning training as a doctor at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1989, he said his conducting career came “purely by accident”.

He began musical training at the Royal Opera House in the 1970s.

He made his conducting debut in 1978 with the opera Carmen at the Gothenburg Opera in Sweden. By 1986, he was principal conductor at the Royal Opera House, where he recorded extensively.

Sir Jeffrey told Radio 4 the course of his career was surprising – since he sometimes “loathed” opera.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Sir Jeffrey during a rehearsal of the Benjamin Britten opera “Billy Budd” in Paris in 2010

“I used to go to Covent Garden and wonder why the singers were never with the beat, always sang out of tune, and why the productions looked so horrible and I’d much rather go to the Royal Shakespeare Company,” he said.

“But when it works it’s the most wonderful thing in the world.”

He added: “Maybe I’ve got the wanderlust inside me, that I perhaps will never actually feel I am at home in any one thing.”

Sir Jeffrey, who has been president of the UK spina bifida charity Shine since 1989, also spoke of feeling self-conscious performing with a disability.

“I always feel a bit sort of odd walking in front of all those people,” he said.

‘Savage lesson’

“I used to rush on, I suppose out of fear, and once in fact fell down.”

On his first appearance at Cologne opera house, he recalls rushing to the podium: “I in fact slipped on the first step and fell into the arms of the viola player, and of course it took me about half an hour to recover from that.

“I learnt a savage lesson from that – despite feeling nervous and self-conscious that I have to walk very, very slowly.”

But he told Radio 4 that he had got “jolly used” to sitting on a stool.

“Occasionally I stand up, and that is an advantage, because if you do stand up occasionally, you can produce an effect.”

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“There is in the last resort no limit to my physical energy if I know what I’m doing and want to do it,” he said.

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