Italian-born conductor Claudio Abbado (born 1933) established a reputation for musical excellence on the fine edge between scholar and performing genius. A meticulous reader of scores, he mastered symphonic detail to such a degree that his conducting has often overshadowed the lead singers. Devoted to artistry, he has ventured beyond the safe German favorites—Johann Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner— to modern opera by Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Born on June 26, 1933, in Milan, Abbado began training under his father, Michelangelo Abbado, before entering Milan's Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory to study piano. After graduation in 1955, he continued piano classes with Austrian concertist Friedrich Gulda and began learning conducting from Antonio Votto, a specialist in Italian symphonic music. Over the next three years, Abbado pursued conducting with Hans Swarowsky, conductor of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. In class at the Vienna Academy of Music, Abbado sometimes sang in the Singverein choir under Herbert von Karajan, his mentor and role model. Abbado further refined his orchestral skills at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena under Alceo Galliera, conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and Carlo Zecchi, leader of the Czech Philharmonic.
Abbado first took the baton at the Teatro Communale in Trieste, conducting Sergei Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges at the age of 25. Still unpolished and uncertain of his own identity as an orchestral interpreter, Abbado displayed a mature regard for the markings of the composer's original score. Strong of arm, he forced both instrumentalists and singers to stay within the bounds of a precise, balanced presentation that was both historically correct and artistically pleasing.
Abbado's debut prefaced a noteworthy entrance into a profession that quickly introduced his promise to the world. At Tanglewood, home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he earned the Koussevitzky conducting prize in 1958. He first encountered American music lovers that April at a concert with the New York Philharmonic.
For Abbado's early mastery of a wide repertory of classical and romantic music, he won the Mitropoulos Prize for conducting in 1963, shared with Pedro Calderon and Zdenek Kosler, both older and more experienced artists. At the time, critical opinion had not reached a firm consensus on Abbado, but critics soon acknowledged that he possessed the talent of another Arturo Toscanini. In 1965, von Karajan signaled formal acceptance among the music community by introducing Abbado at the Salzburg Easter Festival conducting Mahler's Second Symphony. Abbado valued the older musician's guidance and compared him to a sage, compassionate father. After twelve years at the Teatro alla Scala, Abbado made a significant career move by leaving his country in 1965 to lead the Vienna Philharmonic. He returned in triumph in 1968 to become opera conductor of Milan's La Scala, the mecca of Italian opera.
Up the orchestral ladder, Abbado retained the respect of his peers by guest conducting for the London Symphony in 1972 and for a tour of China and Japan with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1972 and 1973. That same year, he won the Mozart Medal of the Mozart Gemeinde of Vienna. Entering his peak years, he took the La Scala company to the Soviet Union in 1974 and led the Vienna Philharmonic and the La Scala company in the United States in 1976.
The main attraction at an Abbado concert is leadership, a character trait he claims to have derived from Wilhelm Furtwangler, one of Germany's most beloved maestros. Unlike the prima donnas of an earlier generation, Abbado throws no tantrums, yet manages to elicit from orchestra, choir, and soloists a high quality of sound and delivery. With the caution of a true connoisseur of the arts, he subdues his urge to venture into individual interpretation by consistent reproduction of the original music.
Remaining at the head of La Scala until 1980, Abbado strove for new challenges. For programs such as the 1976 presentation of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at London's Covent Garden, he earned praise for achievements that boosted the cast's reputation and elevated classical opera itself. Dissatisfied with seasons that polished old gems he insisted on breaking new ground with at least one new contemporary title each year. For his final production at La Scala, Abbado chose an original score of Peter Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, which was repeated after his promotion to director of the 1994 Salzburg Easter Festival. For the second performance, he arranged post-modern staging that echoed the demoralization of Russia in the mid-1990s.
Abbado's globe-trotting schedule has placed him before the world's major symphonies to direct a variety of demanding music. For all his promotion of a broad range of works, he has exhibited an affinity for Italy's beloved Giuseppe Verdi, whose works he interpreted before adoring fans at Covent Garden. Equally at home among opera lovers at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Abbado has developed style and performance capabilities that suit most opera houses. In Austria in the late 1980s, he led the Vienna State Opera in a virtuoso performance of Alban Berg's grimly atonal Wozzeck, the basis of a CD that collectors immediately ranked a classic.
Energetic and visionary, Abbado began leaving his mark on the musical scene by establishing the European Community Youth Orchestra in 1978 and by conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe three years later. After serving as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1979, he earned the Golden Nicolai Medal of the Vienna Philharmonic the next year. In 1982, he established Milan's La Filarmonica della Scala. Returned to the United States, he was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony from 1982 to 1986.
Late in the 1980s, Abbado kept up the pace of fine music by serving from 1983 to 1988 as the London Symphony Orchestra music director. He won the Gran Croce in 1984 and the Mahler Medal of Vienna the next year. Concurrently with his other projects, he assumed the baton of the Vienna State Opera in 1986, the year that he founded Vienna's Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. At his height, he received France's Legion d'Honneur in 1986. The following year, Abbado produced a masterful Le Nozze di Figaro, one of Mozart's most beloved works. In 1988, he established Wien Modern, an annual festival showcasing the contemporary arts.
In 1989, Abbado succeeded his friend and mentor Herbert von Karajan as the first Italian-born artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic and inaugurated a twelve-year career marked by variety and flexibility unknown under past masters. Of his qualifications, a music critic at the Economist called him "reserved and outwardly unassuming but also intensely ambitious," perhaps in reference to his recording contracts with competitors Deutsche Grammophon and CBS/Sony. Instrumentalists under his direction discovered a taskmaster devoted to removing even a hint of imperfection or uncertainty with long hours of rehearsal and refinement. To ready the next generation of attentive musicians, in 1992, he collaborated with cellist Natalia Gutman in initiating the "Berlin Movement," an annual chamber music festival combining the talents of adult professionals with young and untried instrumentalists.
Still perfecting his art, Abbado lent a professional touch to a delicately atmospheric 1993 performance of Claude Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande; a textured, intimate dramatization of Richard Strauss's Elektra; and a melodic 1995 performance of Robert Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust. Abbado energized the 1996 Salzburg Easter Festival with a dynamic dramatization of Verdi's Otello, an operatic version of a moving Shakespearean tragedy. In 1998, Abbado continued to refresh musical favorites with a conscientiously lyric suite of Verdi arias, an energetic presentation of Felix Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and a dramatic, unified rendering of Mozart's Don Giovanni, which Abbado enhanced with graceful embellishments to balance the terror of the protagonist's descent into Hell.
As conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, which most Europeans consider the height of orchestral attainment, Abbado astounded arm-chair critics by departing from the paths of his predecessors, Furtwangler and von Karajan. The fifth of five Berlin conductors, Abbado had made a smooth transition and promised ticket-holders a succession of inspired seasons. In 1998, he chose not to renew his contract. His resignation, effective in 2002, dismayed the German musical elite, who expected their maestros to die in office. To public consternation, he insisted on reserving more time for books, sailboats, and vacations on the ski slopes. Murmurs that he had grown slack sounded more like sour grapes than honest critiques of the man who had broadened the orchestra's horizons, hired younger instrumentalists, invited a higher percentage of female vocalists to perform, and occasionally lent his baton to star conductors as well as newcomers to the podium.
In 1999, Abbado showed no sign of slowing down. He continued a demanding schedule of the best in symphonic music. He refined Wagner's Tristan und Isolde for the Salzburg Easter Festival and added to a growing canon of recordings an expert performance of Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The new millennium brought additional treasures from Abbado, who performed Richard Strauss's works with superb emotional clarity, from languorous to passionate. In August, a public squabble with director Gerard Mortier caused the disbanding of a fine cast and prevented further staging of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Still very much in control, at the age of 68, Abbado again challenged his musicians to perform a spirited version of Verdi's Falstaff, which unsettled the audience with its rapid-fire phrasing.
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