Last year the movie "Shine" made pianist David Helfgott famous for having resumed a musical career in spite of mental disabilities. But audiences long ago ceased to care about the far more drastic physical disabilities that conductor Jeffrey Tate has overcome.
Childhood congenital disorders left his spine twisted into an S, one of his legs dwarfed and essentially useless, and his internal organs permanently compressed, giving him limited lung capacity. A man who would be 6-feet-5-inches tall had he been able to stand up straight is so bent over that he is shorter than average.
"I'm aware that many people who have been afflicted as I have been are not alive, so I'm grateful," says the 54-year-old British musician.
But Tate's abilities made his disabilities fade into insignificance long ago. He has built a celebrated international career as an interpreter of some of the longest and most demanding works in the conductor's repertory -- the symphonies of Bruckner and the operas of Wagner.
Certainly he does not seem to suffer from a lack of energy. Last year he added to his two important European positions (principal conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra and chief guest conductor of the French National Orchestra) an important American one: principal conductor of the Viennese Sommerfest, the Minnesota Orchestra's summer festival. Although it's Tate's
first position in the United States, he's been a familiar figure on podiums here since he burst to fame in the early 1980s. He likes this country, and one suspects that when the next game of musical chairs is played among major American orchestras, Tate will be among those seated when it is over.
"What appeals to me about an American music directorship is the involvement of the conductor with the orchestra and the community," Tate says. "I think that's a fantastic thing. In Europe, being principal conductor means merely that you're the person who does most of the concerts. For me, that simply isn't enough."
After completing his first degree at Cambridge University, Tate remained there for medical school and then completed a residency in surgery at St. Thomas' Hospital in London. "I had a sense of debt to the medical profession and to surgery particularly," Tate says. "I would not be as ambient as I am without it."
But after spending two years practicing medicine, Tate returned to his first love, music. He had managed to become an accomplished pianist. And while the months he spent in hospital beds kept him from practicing, he used that time studying and memorizing scores from the library.
"By the time I was 15, I knew I was never going to be able to play the Liszt Sonata," Tate says. "But I was able to play through all [15 hours] of Wagner's 'Ring.' "
His encyclopedic knowledge of operatic scores led to work as a rehearsal pianist at London's Covent Garden. And his talent did not go unnoticed by the prominent conductors working there -- Colin Davis, Carlos Kleiber and the late Sir Georg Solti, among them. By the late 1970s, while still in his early 30s, Tate's career as a conductor was launched.
While Tate is a man who did not expect to live long -- when he was 25 a life insurance agent told him he wouldn't make it to 50 -- his approach to music is deliberate.
"I don't like to hurry," he says. "I'm not a conductor of the fast, fiery romantic type. I prefer Bruckner, with the sincerity of his musical language and the huge time spans in which his ideas develop, to Mahler, with his hysteria and self-indulgence."
Tate's "greatest musical experience" was listening to the late Sviatoslav Richter play the opening movement of Schubert's G Major Sonata at a tempo that moved with the force, as well as the speed, of a glacier.
His favorite conductor was Otto Klemperer, whom he reveres for the uncompromising honesty of his musicianship and for his unblinking, penetrating vision into music's dark side. When still a student at Cambridge, Tate sang in the chorus when Klemperer performed and recorded Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis." If you own a copy of the original LPs, you can see Tate on the cover, in the front row of the chorus, right behind soloist Matti Talevala.
"You know we did that recording as a way of preparing for a concert," Tate says. "If you think about it, that's the difference between an age like ours and one in which there were still giants like Klemperer. Today the concert would have been used to prepare for the recording sessions, and that's all wrong."
What: Jeffrey Tate conducts the Baltimore Symphony in music by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Elgar
When: Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.; Saturday morning at 11 (the Saturday performance does not include Elgar)
Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
Pub Date: 1/15/98