Georges Prêtre, a French conductor who for seven decades led some of the world’s finest orchestras, found a second home in Vienna and forged close relationships with singer Maria Callas and composer Francis Poulenc, died Jan. 4 at his chateau in Naves, in southern France. He was 92.

His death was announced by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, where Prêtre held the title of honorary conductor, and Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where he was scheduled to lead concerts in March.

The peripatetic conductor led orchestras in cities such as Chicago, New York, Paris and Rome – holding few permanent conducting positions, he said, to avoid overly involving himself with the business and managerial sides of classical-music performance.

He was most closely associated with Vienna’s world-renowned Philharmonic Orchestra, where he had remained a formidable though itinerant presence since conducting Charles Gounod’s opera “Faust” in 1963, and the Vienna Symphony, where he was first principal conductor from 1986 to 1991.

At what amounted to a farewell concert with the Vienna Symphony, Prêtre earned standing ovations for his rendition of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” in October.

“Georges Prêtre was both a sound wizard and a musician with an unparalleled intensity,” Vienna Symphony Chairman Thomas Schindl wrote on Facebook. “He combined concentration and individuality in a unique way and his daring and adventurous personality always spurned us on to perform at our very best – and sometimes beyond of what we believed to be capable of.”

Prêtre, whose last name means “priest,” sometimes conducted as though he were possessed, shaking his arms and writhing at the rostrum in a manner that reminded some observers of his American peer Leonard Bernstein.

He considered himself a musical “interpreter,” not a hand-waving conductor, and typically sought to extract a maximum of emotion from the works he conducted – orchestral pieces as well as operas, in his native French and also in German or Italian.

Reviewing his performance of “Bolero” with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1995, Philadelphia Inquirer critic Lesley Valdes noted that under Prêtre’s baton, the work’s “musical stresses . . . verged on the orgasmic. Not for him the stringencies of Ravel’s intentionally formulaic layering of color over basic pattern; not for Prêtre the chiselings . . . of precise and graduated sonority. This was a siren dying to squeeze out of her girdle, so voluptuous was its interpretation.”


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