The Italian conductor Claudio Abbado is one of the superstars of late 20th-century concert music-renowned for his work in both the concert hall and the opera house. He is an outstanding interpreter of operatic and modern music and works extensively with young musicians.
Abbado was born on June 26, 1933, into a highly musical Milanese family-is brother, Marcello, became a composer and pianist. He received his first musical training from his father, the violinist Michelangelo Abbado, and, after studying piano at the Milan Conservatory, he went on to study at the Vienna Academy of Music (1956-58). In these years, Abbado acquired a deep understanding of Austrian and German music, especially that of Late Romantics such as Gustav MAHLER.
On the podium
In 1958, Abbado attended the summer school at Tanglewood, in Massachusetts, where he won the Koussevitzky Competition for the best young conductor of that year. Returning to Europe, he launched his career as a symphonic and operatic conductor in Trieste, Italy, and as an instructor in chamber music at Parma University. As one of three winners of the 1963 Metropolis Prize, he spent five months as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, while also making guest appearances with other orchestras.
Then, in 1965, Herbert von KARAJAN engaged Abbado to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. at the Salzburg Festival. Thus began Abbado’s long association with Vienna: he became the Philharmonic’s principal conductor in 1971, musical director of the State Opera in 1986, and, in the following year, the city’s general musical director. In the meantime, Abbado conducted the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester in 1965, and made his Covent Garden debut in 1968 with Don Carlos-his first time conducting Verdi. These appearances were the first of many in a long string of successes he enjoyed in Britain.
He also served, from 1968 to 1986, as musical director of the celebrated La Scala Opera in Milan. While broadening its repertoire, he also raised the level of the orchestra’s performances of traditional Italian favourites to new heights. Among his acclaimed productions of Verdi was the original, uncut version of Don Carlos (staged in 1977), an unwieldy work to which he brought (according to the Washington Post musical critic) “discipline, imagination, and momentum.”
In addition to performing the Italian favourites at La Scala-Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and Aida-Abbado also promoted many modern non-Italian works including a celebrated production of Alban BERG’S 20th-century classic, Wozzeck.
Beyond La Scala
Between 1979 and 1986, Abbado was a familiar figure on the British musical scene, holding the position of principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He also often appeared with the European Community Youth Orchestra, which he had helped to found in 1978, and whose players, varying between the ages of 14 and 20, are drawn from the nations of the European Community.
From 1990, Abbado became permanent conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. During his tenure there, the orchestra began to play more 20th-century music. Abbado championed the work of many contemporary composers, particularly that of fellow Italian Luigi NONO (1924-90). The breadth of Abbado’s artistic interests is reflected in yet another project, Austria’s Wien Modern festival, which he founded in 1988, and which includes literary and visual contemporary arts as well as music.