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Renowned Conductor Zdenek Macal, Who Captivated Audiences Worldwide, Passes Away at 87


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Zdenek Macal, a Czech-born conductor who drew a distinctively rich and full sound from orchestras in several countries, including the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, where his tenure is regarded by musicians and administrators as something of a golden age, died on Oct. 25 in Prague. He was 87.

The orchestra announced his death.

With the New Jersey Symphony, where he was music director from 1992 to 2003, Mr. Macal (pronounced ma-KAL) was especially known for his robust performances of works by his compatriots Antonin Dvorak and Josef Suk, and by late-Romantic composers like Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

But his career was international: He shuttled between Europe and the United States and conducted the world’s great orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic, where he was principal conductor from 2003 to 2007.

After he left the Czech Philharmonic, he continued as guest conductor there and freelanced with other orchestras, a spokesperson for the Philharmonic said in an interview.

“He was an old-world figure in music, and he really brought an old-school sound,” the New Jersey Symphony’s concertmaster, Eric Wyrick, said in a phone interview. “He would always ask, ‘Where is my sound?’ And he was relentless in pursuit of this sound world he was famous for.”

That sound, rounded and warm, was ideally suited to the 19th-century repertoire with which Mr. Macal was most closely associated.

“You must feel something, and you should try to show it or say it, and that’s the point for any kind of art,” he told the radio interviewer Bruce Duffie in 1990.

Mr. Wyrick recalled: “There is a real aerobic feeling to the way he wanted us to play. He would tell the winds, ‘Don’t step out of the texture.’ He was marvelous.” He added that the slow tempos Mr. Macal sometimes favored were ideally suited to Dvorak, though perhaps less so to Beethoven.

“He would say, ‘I don’t know how I do it. I take off with my elbows,’” and then he would gesture with his elbows, Mr. Wyrick said.

In a review of a 1990 performance of Czech music by the Pacific Symphony led by Mr. Macal, the critic Chris Pasles noted in The Los Angeles Times that Mr. Macal “obviously had a sense of the correct style — the folk elements transmuted by the composer — and he emphasized the vigorous rhythms while maintaining uncluttered balance.”

Reviewing a 1994 performance of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Mr. Macal, Bernard Holland of The New York Times called him “a good manager of excitement” who “manipulated the accumulating dramas” in Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain” with “admirable control.”

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians called Mr. Macal “a conductor of strong personality, clarity of purpose and firm structural logic in performance.”

That personality could manifest itself in a certain impetuousness. When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Mr. Macal fled his homeland in a taxi, telling the driver to take him to the German border.

“His wife and he and his young daughter, they left with whatever they had, and he had to start all over again,” said Larry Tamburri, the former executive director of the New Jersey orchestra.

Looking back in 1990, Mr. Macal told Mr. Duffie: “In the whole of my life I started a few times from the beginning. I started my career in Czechoslovakia, and then after the Russian invasion we left in ’68. So I started again and had my base in Western Europe. We came every year a little to the United States, but my base was in Europe.”

He moved to the United States in 1982 and, after becoming a citizen, assumed the directorship of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in 1986. He held that position until 1995; for the last three years he was the music director of both the Milwaukee and New Jersey orchestras.

The New Jersey Symphony’s recording of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, which he conducted, won a Grammy Award for best engineered classical album in 2001.

Zdenek Macal was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, on Jan. 8, 1936, and studied violin with his father from the age of 4. He enrolled at the conservatory in Brno, won an international conducting competition in Besançon, France, in 1965 and conducted the Czech Philharmonic for the first time shortly after winning the Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting competition in New York in 1966. He made his American debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1972.

Mr. Macal’s wife, Georgina, a singer, died some years ago, according to the New Jersey Symphony. He is survived by a daughter, Monika.


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