Who was Claudio Abbado, and what did he contribute to orchestral music?

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Claudio Abbado (June 26, 1933 – January 20, 2014) was a remarkably versatile conduct of both orchestras and operas. He was known for taking on difficult and sometimes unpopular works such as those by Arthur Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luciano Berio, in addition to works by more well-known and popular composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahams. In addition to conducting, Abbado also mentored young artists in the European Union, working with them in the companies he personally founded, the European Youth Orchestra and the Gustave Mahler Jugend Orchestra. Abbado’s concerts were usually thematic and combined different areas of the arts; one example was his combination of the Faustian legends with orchestral music. Abbado also served as the artistic director for the Salzburg Festival, which, like his own concerts, combines different forms of art. Prizes at the Salzburg Festival are awarded for excellence in these blended endeavors.

Born in Milan, Italy, Abaddo’s family was a musical one. Young Claudio was always surrounded by music: his father was a violinist, as was his sister, his mother a pianist, and his brother both a pianist and composer. Although World War II changed the family’s economic fortunes, Abbado remembers his childhood fondly, telling journalist Robertman Chester that the family “lived in trhee room, all full of music.”  

Claudio’s interest in music was further ignited following a visit to the La Scala opera house at age eight. Everything about the La Scala fascinated the young boy. In an interview with Stephen E. Rubin of the New York Times, Abbado recalled he “decided to become a conductor when I was eight.” He remembers “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."

He meant it. After the concert, Claudio dedicated himself to learning how to play the piano; it wasn’t long until he was playing duets with his father: Claudio on piano and his father on violin. At age fifteen, he was making a modest income by playing organ at his church. Deciding to become a conductor, however, meant that he had to largely give up his other pursuits. From 1956 to 1958, he devoted himself to conducting full time, studying under Hans Swarowsky. The experience with Swarowsky made Abbado confident that he had selected the right profession.

In Vienna, Abbado met another future famous conductor, Zubin Metha. The two friends managed to find a way to audition for the closed-to-the-public auditions for the Muskiverein Chorus, and both were accepted into the brass section. This entry allowed Abbado and Metha to rehearse with renowned conductors like Herbert von Karajan and Bruno Walter.

In 1958, Abbado and Metha traveled to the United States, working that summer at the famous Tanglewood festival. During the competition, Abbado bested his friend Metha, winning the Serge Koussevitsky conducting prize. One feature of the prize was the offer to conduct an American orchestra, an offer Abbado declined. He decided that he wanted to continue studying in Europe.

For the next five years, Abbado did study, but he returned to the United States in 1963. That same year, he won another prize for conducting at the prestigious Dimitri Mitropoulos competition. Despite his repeated success in the States, Abbado returned to Europe.

Now, back in Europe, Abbado’s career skyrocketed. The director of the RIAS Orchestra Berlin, Herbert von Karajan, invited Abbado to appear the Salzburg Festival (where he was the artistic director.). At Salzburg, Abbado directed the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. In 1965, he debuted of Giacomo Manzoni's Nuclear Death at La Scala. Conducting this symphony was a risky career move, as some people did not think it was right for La Scala, but Abbado shined. Three years later, in 1968, Claudio Abbado was appointed the principal,...

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