Massimo Freccia, 98, conductor and BSO music director in 1950s

November 20, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Massimo Freccia, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's musical director in the 1950s who went on to make numerous critically acclaimed recordings, died of a respiratory ailment Tuesday at his home in Rome. He was 98.

Mr. Freccia recorded widely and was a well-known figure in Baltimore's musical and social scene for the six years he lived in the area.

Born in Florence, Italy, he grew up playing the violin with a group of friends. His father wanted him to became a lawyer, but he studied conducting instead in Vienna, Austria, and led orchestras in Budapest, Hungary, for three years.

"He was born with passion in his soul for music," said his stepdaughter, Maria Luisa Thomas of Owings Mills. "He also had a well-developed sense of humor and a sense of the ridiculous. He could also be a devastating mimic."

In the early 1930s he moved to Havana, Cuba, where he met and married his wife of 59 years, the former Maria Luisa Azpiazu, a member of a prominent musical family.

While in Havana, Mr. Freccia befriended composer George Gershwin and frequently performed his compositions.

Arturo Toscanini, who led the NBC Symphony, invited Mr. Freccia to make his American debut in 1938, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Lewisohn Stadium in New York.

He then became director of the New Orleans Symphony for eight seasons.

In the early 1950s, after Peabody Conservatory Director Reginald Stewart resigned his other post as BSO musical director, civic and artistic leaders went on a national search for his replacement.

In 1952 they named Mr. Freccia and welcomed him to Baltimore with a luncheon attended by 1,500 people at the old Emerson Hotel. He and his wife were later frequently mentioned in feature stories and society profiles describing opening-night parties and dinners.

Mr. Freccia inaugurated a series of Sunday concerts at the Lyric designed to expand the symphony's audience, which succeeded.

"The customers, who paid from 25 cents to $1.80 to hear the first of a series of Sunday matinee concerts, refused to leave their places as Freccia was recalled again and again from his dressing room," The Sun reported in 1952.

"He got very good results here, with quite good programs," said Robert E. Benson, a classical record reviewer and former public radio host.

"He knew so many international soloists and traveled in a set of the leading musicians of his era. He also made a series of wonderful recordings," Benson said.

While conducting in Baltimore in the fall, winter and spring, Mr. Freccia traveled throughout Europe in the summer.

He was guest conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, an event that occasioned an interview by The Sun's London correspondent, conducted at Mr. Freccia's suite at the Ritz Hotel.

"Pressed for distinctions he has discovered between British and American orchestras, Freccia was diplomatically vague," The Sun noted in 1955.

In 1958 he announced he was leaving Baltimore and would return to Italy, where he became musical director for Radio Roma (RAI) and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra.

One of his final works in Baltimore was a concert performance of Richard Strauss' Elektra at the Lyric, where his admirers presented him with an engraved silver tray.

In 1960 he performed for Pope John XXIII in the Vatican. Mr. Freccia returned to Baltimore for guest-conducting spots in the 1960s and for family visits in the 1970s.

He continued to conduct in Tuscany and other places until about six years ago.

A Mass was offered Thursday in Florence.

Survivors, in addition to his wife and stepdaughter, include two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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