Jesús López-Cobos, a conductor with a multinational resume who always retained a fondness for the music of his native Spain, died Friday in Berlin. He was 78.
In addition to leading the Cincinnati orchestra from 1986 to 2001, López-Cobos was general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 1981 to 1990 and music director of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra in Switzerland from 1991 to 2000, among other positions. He conducted operas as well as orchestral works and made numerous recordings, although he preferred live performances — partly, he once told an interviewer, because they lend themselves to imperfections.
“Many times I tell musicians, ‘I don’t mind if there’s a mistake there,'” he said. “I prefer that we have the feeling that we were doing real music, that we were really doing music together.”
López-Cobos was born Feb. 25, 1940, in Toro, a small town in northwestern Spain, and grew up amid a mix of musical influences.
“My father was a Wagnerian and was interested only in German music,” he told musicologist Bruce Duffie in 1997, “but my mother had a very pretty voice, and she was always singing in Spanish, zarzuelas or Spanish music. So I heard this music all together.”
At first López-Cobos seemed headed for a different career entirely: His doctorate from the University of Madrid was in philosophy. Yet, although he had no formal musical training, he conducted the university choir while a student there.
“I was always interested in singing and the 16th- and 17th-century music of Spain,” he told The Associated Press in 1988.
After receiving his degree, he went to Vienna to study conducting and won some conducting prizes. He spent the 1969-70 academic year at the Juilliard School in New York, then went to Italy, where he assisted Swiss conductor Peter Maag. In 1970, when Maag became ill, the baton fell to López-Cobos, who conducted “The Magic Flute” as his opera debut.
He made his U.S. conducting debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1972, and he first conducted the New York Philharmonic in 1982. He also conducted at Covent Garden in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala in Milan, the Kennedy Center in Washington and other famed halls.
In 1987 he took the Deutsche Oper Berlin to Japan with Wagner’s “Ring” cycle; it was the first time the full cycle had been performed in that country. His tenure at Cincinnati included, in 1995, the orchestra’s first European tour since 1969.
López-Cobos’ survivors include his third wife, Brigitte, whom he married in 1998, and three sons, Jesús Jr., Manuel and Antoine.
López-Cobos was conscious of the limiting view of Spanish music that much of the world held.
“Unfortunately, for many years we projected that image of castanets, flamenco guitars and music of the bull ring,” he told The New York Times in 1988, “and I still feel the need to defend myself a little from the old stereotypes.”
The Spanish orchestral repertoire is limited, but during his tenure in Cincinnati López-Cobos would offer a program of Spanish and Spanish-themed music each year, and Spanish works were among the many he recorded with that orchestra.
Yet he is also remembered there for his interpretations of Wagner and Bruckner, as well as for something he did off the podium: In 1992, when the orchestra was facing a deficit, he took a pay cut.
John Morris Russell, a former assistant to López-Cobos and now conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, remembered a boss who, rather than taking a tyrannical approach, had a deft personal touch with musicians.
“He never forgot how an orchestra was made up of individuals,” Russell told the Cincinnati Business Courier.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.