Portrait of the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, taken in Milan, 1979
Abbado first began to draw public attention when he won the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood in 1958; he made his debut at La Scala, Milan, two years later.
He went on to hold a succession of the world’s most prestigious posts, including music director of La Scala (1968 -86), the London Symphony Orchestra (1979-1987) and the Vienna State Opera (1986-91), as well as general music director of the city of Vienna from 1987.
The Berlin Philharmonic’s members elected him as its artistic director, a post he took up in 1990, yet he stunned his fans by leaving after 13 years [most expected him to stay forever]. He never held a directorship in the US, though, saying in interviews that he did not wish to battle union regulations on rehearsal time. His musical standards were exacting; he was willing to give everything to achieve them and expected nothing less from his players.
As champion of youth orchestras, new music and the widening of audiences, Abbado’s impact on concert life was simply immeasurable. In Milan he presented concerts for students and workers; in Vienna, he established the Wien Modern Festival, now a crucial event in the contemporary music calendar; and he founded the European Union Youth Orchestra, which later became the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, plus the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and the Orchestra Mozart (though the latter closed down last week, apparently unable to continue without him). In 2003 he spurred into existence the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, its players hand-picked and as dedicated to him as he was to them.
His last appearance was a performance with the LFO of Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 at the Lucerne Festival in August 2013. The festival’s chief executive, Michael Haefliger, recalls: “There was a sense in the hall that it might possibly be his final concert, so far removed and deeply transfigured did Claudio Abbado seem to all of us on this unforgettable evening, in this moment of unfathomable silence.”
Claudio Abbado died in the early hours of Monday morning in Bologna, with his family at his bedside. In 2000 he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and underwent drastic surgery that left him thereafter extremely slender and apparently physically frail; sadly the disease caught up with him in the end. Those close to him report that in his last months, talking about music would always lift his spirits. His musical legacy will continue to raise ours, even though he is no longer with us.