Claudio Abbado is a member of the second great generation of post-war conductors. He is a conductor of remarkable versatility and artistic interests and he is a master of both the orchestral and operatic repertoire. His concert programs are as likely to include works of more difficult, unpopular modern composers such as Arthur Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luciano Berio, as Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms. Indeed thanks to his initiative, modernist and avantgarde opera was first performed at La Scala, the tradition-conscious home of Italian opera. Abbado has committed himself to nurturing younger musicians, most notably in the European Union Youth Orchestra the Gustav Mahler Jugend Orchestra, both of which he founded. Abbado takes pains to unite different areas of the arts. His seasonal orchestral programs frequently include thematic concert series, for example, the Faust legend, or Hölderlin's poetry. As an artistic director of the famous Salzburg Festival, Abbado inaugurated competitions for literature and fine art to complement the prizes for musical excellence.
Abbado was born into an old Milanese family, where music was almost second nature. His father was a violinist, his mother a pianist, his brother a pianist and composer who eventually became the Director of the Milan Conservatory, his sister studied violin. "After the war, we were living in three rooms, all full of music," Abbado told Robert Chesterman in Conductors in Conversation.
A visit to the La Scala opera house as an eight-year-old boy fired Abbado's musical imagination. After the visit, he threw himself into learning how to play piano and before long he was playing piano-violin duets with his father. By the time he was 15, he was earning money playing organ in church. That trip to La Scala also gave him other ideas. "I decided to become a conductor when I was eight," he told Stephen E. Rubin of the New York Times. "I remember Antonio Guarnieri conducting the La Scala Orchestra.... After hearing his performance of Debussy's Nocturnes, I wrote in my diary, this is one piece I would like to conduct when I am old." The decision was not an easy one, however. Dedicating his life to conducting, entailed not dedicating his life to composition or piano, which he studied at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan. From there, he went to the Vienna Music Academy where from 1956 until 1958, he studied under Hans Swarowsky, an experience that decided the issue once and for all in favor of conducting.
While in Vienna, Abbado became friends with another student who would go on to become a world-class conductor, Zubin Mehta. The two were anxious to observe the great conductors of the 1950s preparing an orchestra for a concert. However, rehearsals were closed to the public. Undeterred, they auditioned for the Musikverein Chorus and were accepted into the bass section. Once in the chorus, they were able to rehearse with conductors such as Herbert von Karajan and Bruno Walter.
After their courses at the Vienna academy were concluded in 1958, Abbado and Mehta traveled to the United States, where they spent a summer working at the Tanglewood Festival near Boston, Massachusetts. While there, Abbado beat out Mehta to win the Serge Koussevitsky award for conducting. The prize brought him an offer to take over as conductor of an American orchestra. Abbado turned it down, however, to return to Europe and study more.
Abbado returned to the United States in 1963, where he won another prestigious prize for conductors, the Dimitri Mitropoulos competition. The award was completely unexpected; Abbado felt he had conducted poorly in the early rounds. The prize included $5,000 and a year working as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic in its glory days under Leonard Bernstein. The time in New York was difficult for Abbado. He didn't feel confident about his English and he didn't particularly care for life in Manhattan. When the year was up, he returned once again to Europe.
Back in Europe, Abbado's career took off. Herbert von Karajan heard Abbado with the RIAS Orchestra Berlin, and invited the young conductor to appear at the Salzburg Festival, of which Karajan was the artistic director. Abbado directed the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra with whom he would later forge important ties, in a performance of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony. A year later in 1965, he conducted the debut of Giacomo Manzoni's Nuclear Death at La Scala. It was a work that once might have been considered conducting unbefitting of La Scala, but Abbado pulled it off. In 1968, he was named La Scala's permanent conductor, and in 1971, he became its musical director.
Abbado seemed equally at home conducting orchestral concerts or opera. Even early in his career, he boasted a repertoire that extended from Classical and Romantic composers like Mozart and Tchaikovsky, to Viennese modernists like Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg, to experimental composers of the post-war era like Stockhausen, Berio, and Ligeti. One of his stylistic trademarks was his penchant for conducting from memory rather than using a score, even for difficult twentieth century pieces. Abbado had learned the importance of eye contact with his players from the other great Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini. "I tried once to use the score, but for me it meant that I didn't know it," he told Rubin. "Contact with the orchestra is much better without a score. And with opera, if you're looking at the score, you can't see the stage." He also believes that if the unexpected occurs, a conductor's ability to respond is greater if he is not dependent on the score.
By the 1970s, Abbado was one of the busiest conductors in the world. In 1971, he was named the permanent conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. As musical director at La Scala, he founded the Orchestra della Scala, which was dedicated to performing works of the orchestral concert repertoire. He expanded the performing season at La Scala into the summer months. In addition to his other positions, he was the principal guest conductor of the London Symphony, and began touring regularly with the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras.
He was actively interested in politics, particularly in Italy. He organized a concert at La Scala to oppose the Italian Fascist Party prior to an election. Eventually he became alignedn the minds of journalists in particularith the Italian Communist Party, even though he was never a party member. "I voted with the Communists simply because they were in the opposition to the Fascists," he told Rubin. "My line is very clear. I'm for freedom. Everything that is not for freedom I protest." Abbado's political engagement had its roots in his mother's opposition to the Fascists during the Second World War. "I remember one of my passions was Bartok," he told Chesterman. "I was writing on the wall of the street 'Vive Bartok.'And the Gestapo came to the house to ask, 'Who is the Partisan Bartok?' They didn't know about music."
Abbado also organized special concerts for workers, students, and others who would not normally hear classical music. He presented films at La Scala, free of charge, of operas the house had presented in past seasons. He was equally committed to encouraging young musicians. In 1978, he founded and began serving as musical director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, a group of players between the ages of 14 and 21 from all over Europe. He founded the Gustav Mahler Jugend Orchestra 1986. In the 1990s, while serving as the musical director of the Berlin Philharmonic, he helped organize the annual series, Berliner Begegnungen (Encounters in Berlin), which brought together experienced professional musicians and talented young instrumentalists.
In the 1980s, Abbado diversified his fields of performance. He was named musical director and principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He held the latter post until 1988. In 1981, Abbado resigned his post at La Scala, although he continued to conduct at the Milan opera house occasionally. Five years later, he took over the post of musical director of Vienna's State Opera and of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Small wonder that in 1987 he was named the city's chief musical director.
In the fall of 1989, Abbado was elected the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic by the orchestra's musicians. The news surprised many in the world of classical music who believed that either Lorin Maazel or James Levine would win the post. Abbado became only the fifth chief conductor in Berlin's history, succeeding Herbert von Karajan and other luminaries such as Hans von Bülow and Wilhelm Furtwängler. The announcement caused disappointment and some anger in New York, where it was said Abbado had made a verbal agreement to succeed Zubin Mehta at the New York Philharmonic.
The 1990s did not see any reduction in Abbado's frenetic work pace. In addition to the Berlin Philharmonic, he was the artistic consultant to the Vienna State Opera and, beginning in 1994, as artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival. He regularly recorded both orchestral and operatic programs with both the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, and on occasion the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
In 1994, Abbado was awarded Ernst-von-Siemens-Musicpreis, Germany's most prestigious music award which included a cash prize of 250,000 DM. By the end of the decade, however, Abbado had reached his mid-60s. He was beginning to feel the strain of three and a half decades of relentless music making. In early 1998, quite unexpectedly, he announced that he did not intend to extend his contract with the orchestra when it expired in 2002. He had no complaints with the orchestra; he merely wanted more time for himself, according to the Berlin newspaper, Die Tageszeitung, "to read more, go skiing and sailing."
Still, in spring 2000, before he left the Philharmonic, Abbado publicly criticized the Berlin Senat, which funds the orchestra, for not doing enough to prevent the loss of many good musicians. Unfortunately, Abbado was forced to cancel most of his engagements for the latter half of 2000 when he fell ill and had to undergo emergency surgery for an intestinal ulcer in July.
With the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Mozart: Mass K 427, Sony Classics, 1991.
Mahler: Symphonie No. 1, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1992.
Mozart: Posthorn Serenade, etc., Sony Classics, 1993.
New Year's Eve Concert 1992, Sony Classics, 1993.
Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1994.
Prometheus-Beethoven, Nono, Liszt, Scriabin Sony Classics, 1994.
Schumann: Scenes from Goethe's Faust, Sony Classics, 1995.
Mozart: Symphonies 25 & 31, etc., Sony Classics, 1995.
Mahler: Symphonie No. 8, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1995.
Kurtág: Grabstein, Stele; Stockhausen: Gruppen, Deutsche Grammophon, 1996.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Sony Classics, 1996.
Mussorgsky: Night on Bare Mountain, etc, Sony Classics, 1997.
Mozart: Flötenkonzerte 1 & 2, etc., Emd/Emi Classics, 1997.
Verdi: Overtures, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1999.
Mozart, Debussy, Takemitsu, Emd/Emi Classics, 2000.
Rossini: II Barbiere di Siviglia, etc., Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 2001.
With the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Mahler: Symphony No. 3, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1987.
Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1992.
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1996.
With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2, etc., Sony Classics, 1987.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5, etc., Sony Classics, 1987.
Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture, etc., Sony Classics, 1994.
Mahler: Symphonies No. 2 & 4, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1997.
With the London Symphony Orchestra
Mendelssohn: Symphonies 3 & 4, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1990.
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1991.
Ravel: Boléro, Daphnis et Chloé, etc., Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1995.
Chopin, Liszt: Piano Concertos, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1996.
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 & 2, etc., Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 2001.
With other ensembles
Bizet: Carmen, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1987.
Berg: Wozzeck, Uni/Deutsche Grammophon, 1989.
Abbado Edition [BOX SET], Uni/Philips, 1992.
Viva Verdi-A 100th Anniversary Celebration, Uni/Decca, 2000.
Chesterman, Robert, Conductors in Conversation, Proscenium Books, New York, 1992.
Billboard, Sept. 22, 1990, October 21, 1989.
Die Tageszeitung, September 25, 1998.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 10, 1995.
New York Times, February 4, 1973; March 1, 1987; November 8, 1989.
Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 3, 1994; April 6, 1996.
National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, http://www.grammy.com (March 13, 2001).
Gerald E. Brennan
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