The conductor Daniel Harding was a close friend of Claudio Abbado for 20 years. He recalls here, in an exclusive article for Slipped Disc, the unique qualities of an elusive maestro.
Claudio was one of the wonders of the world. I think in more than 20 years of knowing him I only heard him raise his voice twice. One of those times was, typically, in jest!
He was the master of leading those around him exactly where he wanted them without ever seeming to demand or insist, without ever being too explicit, or damaging the feeling of freedom that he gave each musician.
He created at least 6 orchestras, most of them for young people. Through this he did more than any single person in our time to educate an entire generation, maybe 2 generations, in what it means to play in an orchestra. I doubt there is a single professional orchestra in the whole of Europe without a group of musicians who played at some point in one of the orchestras he founded.
Musicians who will never forget his simple message – Listen! (of course said in barely a whisper) Claudio sought to remove himself from the equation, he talked endlessly (on the rare occasions when he spoke at all!) of all music as being Chamber Music. If he could aid the musicians to play, so to speak, undirected then he could work his magic. Cajoling and inviting, he would then take the performance to unimagined heights He spoke multiple languages perfectly, but always pretended he couldn’t! Especially if the conversation taking a turn he didn’t appreciate!
His wonderful look of total confusion could disarm almost any situation, we all loved him desperately but few dared to risk upsetting him. His acts of generosity were extraordinary and his single-mindedness could be hugely demanding. There is a large group of us who were lucky enough to have been, at one point or another, part of his close circle. This was not always an easy place to be but I know of none of us who would have had it any other way.
He was, and will continue to be, often imitated. It isn’t very difficult!! Take all the focus out of your consonants, look lost and confused, put your hand on your chest and say ‘beautiful music’ ‘schöne Musik’ What more did he need to say?! He was cheeky, impish, wicked and hysterically funny. He was magnetic, charming and, so I am told, gorgeous!
He was the greatest conductor I have ever seen or heard in person. Not always, not for all repertoire, but when he was in his element and comfortable with those around him then there was nobody to touch him.
In Lucerne, over the last years, once again he built himself a fortress. Everything was on his terms; who played, what was played, when he rehearsed, for how long.. It could be merciless, but in the end the results were unforgettable like almost nothing else. I don’t think the musicians of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra would have done all that for anybody else. There was nobody else like Claudio and there won’t be again.
I will always remember him in the silence that follows the music. There was no moment he treasured more than those seconds of reflection and privacy before the tumult swept the music into the past, into memory. He wasn’t always good at closeness, not good at conversation, not good at taking applause, so he held onto that last moment alone with the music as long as he could. Always listening.
I am deeply saddened by the loss of a great musician, a man who for many decades has marked history in the world of conducting and musical interpretation for international institutions. His work is an immense testimony to the importance of European and Italian culture around the world. I admire him for the strong courage he showed in the face of a long and terrible illness, and for the seriousness and profundity that characterized his life as a musician and as a Maestro.
photo: Chris Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music&Arts
Some tributes from Italy: President Giorgio Napolitano said that the death of Abbado “is a source of strong emotion and pain for me personally, and a profound loss for Italy and for (our) culture”. Last August, Napolitano appointed Abbado as a Senator for life, a position honouring Italians who have shown extraordinary scientific, social or artistic merit. “From today, Italy is poorer,” said Riccardo Chailly, named as principal conductor for La Scala beginning next year. “(His death) leaves a great void in the history of musical interpretation,” added Chailly, who described Abbado as a mentor. “For us Italians, Claudio has been a landmark…capable of representing the best of our tradition”.
Photo: (c) Chris Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music&Arts
Netherlands Opera director, Pierre Audi: I can’t think of a greater loss to the Arts in my lifetime.
Record producer Michael Fine: I recall Abbado once saying to me, ‘Per me, la parola straniero non esiste.’ For me the word foreigner does not exist.’
London singer Sharon Eckman:
When Abbado walked into a piano rehearsal, you could feel the energy ramp up – not from him, he was so quiet we could barely hear his instructions to us, and more often than not, these would be in the form of grunts – but because the magic always happened. For the chorus, in any case. The orchestra were a little less enamoured, for those very reasons. He also conducted without a score; a risky proposition for both conductor and orchestra. But because he never looked down, he was always looking at us. Or at me, obviously. Of course he looked at me, I adored him, why wouldn’t he?
Oh those looks… The ‘I have just ascended to heaven thanks to the string playing at the end of (insert Mahler symphony here)’. The ‘I asked for a diminuendo, and you have given me braying donkeys, I am now a broken man’. Or as one ex-LSC member put it today “The look of utter, inconsolable anguish when some phrase or other wasn’t exactly as he wanted it,” as though we’d killed his puppy, or the ghost of Mahler.
And the gestures. He didn’t need words – finger to the lips and we were as pianissimo as he. Praying gesture at the end of a concert and it was as though the gods of music were praying with him.
Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu:
The year was 2003, when someone informed Maestro Abbado of a young Albanian tenor who had recently won two major voice competitions . The Maestro decided to hear me, I do not know exactly why: it could have been a curiosity to hear a tenor in his early twenties or the fact of my actually being Albanian since he was holding auditions for Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte. The two protagonists are called to disguise themselves as Albanians, and perhaps I, too, was intrigued by the strange coincidence of seeing an Albanian interpret the role of an Albanian. I remember it so clearly, as if it were now; after only a few minutes, the Maestro told me that the role of Ferrando was mine. It was one of the first roles that opened doors for me… Maestro Abbado had faith in me and I’ve always felt that he helped me and sensed with full conviction what I could become. This was not only valuable for me : there are hundreds of young artists whom Claudio Abbado discovered and guided on the magnificent journey of music and who now play , sing and conduct on the most important stages in the world.
Israeli conductor Noam Zur:
In 2011, I visited the Lucerne Festival and was lucky enough to see the great Claudio Abbado rehearse Mahler’s tenth symphony and to get a photocopy of his score from him (with his handwritten annotations).
He was the most noble, humble, gentle and modest man imaginable, and really took time to talk to me during his intermissions, several days in a row. This week, I am conducting the Adagio from the tenth symphony with the Transylvanian State Philharmonic Orchestra. Today, in the first rehearsal, I told this story to the orchestra while conducting the adagio out of “his” score. In the intermission, the musicians told me that the news had broken about his death, while we were playing his edition of the Adagio. I was so shocked that I couldn’t finish the rehearsal, and went to cry in my dressing room before returning to the hotel. Together with the orchestra, we decided to dedicate not only this piece, but the entire concert on Friday 24th of January to his memory. The rest of the program includes Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, and Chopin f-minor piano concerto.
Swiss violinist Etienne Abelin:
You always insisted that we call you Claudio, not maestro, not Mr. Abbado, you wanted to be on eye level. But you were in fact always that little, subtle step ahead and ever so gently invited us to join you on that journey, in a way that felt like a catalyst. It needed no words. Your gift was to make us feel like we were fully ourselves, more than ourselves, never controlled from something outside, but gently guided. Guided to see and share beauty and more than that: to live an ethos of interconnectedness, collaboration, balance. For me, you embodied the best the world has to offer and this can and will live on. I’ll do my very best to contribute as much as I can.
Gustavo Dudamel will dedicate the January 22 performance of the Berlioz Requiem (with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France) from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris to the memory of Claudio Abbado.
Dudamel issued the following statement:
“ Claudio Abbado will always be part of the exalted group of geniuses in the history of the arts. His endless generosity and love touched me at a very early age and will be always one of the most valuable treasures in my life. It was not only me personally but more importantly our Sistema Nacional de Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela that he embraced as his family. He gave to us his sincere love and his profound wisdom. On behalf of my colleagues and of Maestro Abreu, I would like to pay an eternal tribute to our beloved Maestro Abbado, with the faith that his spirit and his inspiration will be always with us. “
We have received the following notice from Bologna:
The chapel of rest will be held at the BASILICA DI SANTO STEFANO, BOLOGNA from 14:00 on January 21 until midnight January 22.
THE FAMILY ASKS TO RESPECT CLAUDIO’S WISHES and SHARE THEIR MEMORIES by offering a DONATION IN LIEU OF FLOWERS:
Centro di ematologia oncologia pedriatica Bologna
IBAN IT 87 E 0200802474000103019755
CODICE BIC UNCRITMM
Casa Circondariale Dozza
IBAN IT78 W063 8536 7900 7400 0048 43S
coordinata bancaria internazionale
Thomson Smillie, former head of Wexford Festival Opera and Kentucky Opera, has died, aged 71. Full obituary here.
Tribute by Daniel Barenboim:
“Ich kannte Claudio Abbado seit Anfang der 50er Jahre, damals studierte er Klavier bei Gulda am Salzburger Mozarteum. 1956 absolvierten wir gemeinsam einen Dirigierkurs in Siena und seitdem verband uns eine lange musikalische und menschliche Freundschaft. Ich habe viele besondere Erinnerungen an ihn, zuletzt natürlich an seine Rückkehr an die Mailänder Scala 2012, als wir gemeinsame Konzerte hatten. Wir verlieren mit Claudio Abbado einen der größten Musiker des letzten halben Jahrhunderts, und einen der wenigen Musiker, die eine besonders enge Beziehung mit dem Geist der Musik hatten – und das über die Grenzen der musikalischen Genres hinweg. Besonders würdigen muss man seinen Einsatz für die zeitgenössische Musik und Komponisten wie Nono, Ligeti und Kurtag, die er auch an der Mailänder Scala während seiner Zeit als Musikdirektor aufführte. Einen ganz besonders großen Beitrag leistete Claudio Abbado auch mit der Gründung zahlreicher Jugendorchester. In dieser Hinsicht war er ein Pionier der während seiner gesamten Karriere mit jungen Musikern arbeitete, sie forderte und förderte. Dadurch setzte er ein Zeichen für die Welt: dass junge und unerfahrene Musiker mit der richtigen Einstellung und dem Einsatz auf dem höchsten Niveau musizieren können. Dies und vieles andere haben wir ihm zu verdanken.“
“I knew Claudio Abbado from the early 1950s, when he was studying piano with Gulda at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. We both graduated from the conducting class in Siena in 1956 and since then we enjoyed a long musical and personal friendship. I have lots of memories of him, most recently of course his return to La Scala in 2012 where we appeared together in concerts. We have lost one of the great musicians of the last half-century and one of the few musicians who had a particularly close relation with the spirit of the music, and one that went beyond the boundaries of musical genres. In particular we must recognise his commitment to contemporary music and composers such as Nono, Ligeti and Kurtag, whose music he performed at the La Scala when he was music director there. One of Claudio Abbado’s great achievements was to set up a number of youth orchestras. In this respect, he was a pioneer who worked with young musicians throughout his entire career, he supported and nurtured them. He sent signal to the world that young and inexperienced musicians can, with the right mindset and commitment play music at the very highest level. For this we must thank him.”
A statement from Sir Simon, issued by the Berlin Philharmonic:
“We have lost a great musician and a very generous man. Ten years ago we all wondered whether he would survive the illness which has now claimed him, but instead, he, and we as musicians and public, could enjoy an extraordinary Indian Summer, in which all the facets of his art came together in an unforgettable way.
He said to me a few years ago, “Simon, my illness was terrible, but the results have not been all bad: I feel that somehow I hear from the inside of my body, as if the loss of my stomach gave me internal ears. I cannot express how wonderful that feels. And I still feel that music saved my life in that time!”
Always a great conductor, his performances in these last years were transcendent, and we all feel privileged to have witnessed them. Personally, he was always immensely kind and generous to me, from my earliest days as a conductor, and we kept warm and funny contact together even up to last Friday. He remains deep in my heart and memory.”
A statement rom the Salzburg Easter Festival:
Christian Thielemann, the Artistic Director of the Salzburg Easter Festival, says: „I am very sad to receive the news of the passing of Claudio Abbado. I always admired how he managed to combine emotions and intellect in his nnterpretations. Abbado was an extraordinary opera and concert conductor and likewise a very sympathetic and modest colleague. His death means a great loss for the musical world.“
The great Italian maestro, whose death was announced today, was principal guest conductor in Chicago from 1982 to 1986. Solti looked upon him as a likely successor but the cards never fell that way, nor did subsequent interest from the New York Philharmonic lead Abbado to take up what America regarded as the summit of a conductor’s career – music director of a Big Five orchestra.
Abbado was managed by Ronald Wilford at CAMI but never showed the requisite ambition. Wilford reacted with astonishment when the Berlin Philharmonic players elected Abbado as Karajan’s successor (he had been pushing James Levine). In the music business, Abbado was often talked of as a maverick. What managers failed to understand was his fundamental idealism.
Abbado, the son of anti-Fascist resistants, was politically on the Left. He had friends in the Italian Communist Party and was no fan of the market economy. Not short of ego, he disdained the commercial trappings of celebrity and refused to promote his many recordings with media appearances. He was a misfit in America, a man who gave nothing away to the myth-making industry, preserving his integrity and thereby missing every available opportunity. He showed no sign of regret.
UPDATE: Andrew Patner has more here on Abbado and Chicago.
Franz Welser-Möst, music director of the Vienna State Opera and Cleveland Orchestra, has posted:
Ich habe Claudio Abbado 1986 auf Vermittlung der Wiener Philharmoniker kennen gelernt und durfte ihm eine Saison an der Wiener Staatsoper assistieren, genauso wie die folgenden Jahre bei von ihm gegründeten Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. Das war damals eine politische Großtat, da ja der eiserne Vorhang noch existierte und Abbadao die Vision hatte die Länder der alten Monarchie wieder musikalisch zusammen zu führen.
Er war mir gegenüber nie der Star, sondern ein aufmerksamer, liebenswürdiger Förderer. Ich bewunderte seine Hartnäckigkeit und das “Anzünden” von begeistertem Musizieren bei Aufführungen. Er war ein phantastischer “Abenddirigent”, bei dem es oft in Aufführungen zu
überraschenden, emotionalen und umwerfenden Ergebnissen kam. Ein Denkmal hat er sich auch mit “Wien Modern” gesetzt, an das – wie beim GMJO- damals zuerst niemand so recht glaubte. Ich habe einen kollegialen, uneitlen und begeisternden Förderer meiner frühen Jahre verloren, der Wien und die Welt musikalisch stark geprägt hat.
I got to know Claudio Abbado in 1986 at the Vienna Philharmonic and assisted him for a season at the Vienna State Opera, and at the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra that he founded. This was a major political feat at the time since the Iron Curtain still stood and Abbado’s vision set the lead in bringing the countries of the old monarchy musically back together.
To me he was never the star, but an attentive, kindly mentor. I admired his tenacity and the way he enthused musicians in performances . He was a fantastic ‘on-the-night conductor’, giving performances of astonishing , emotional, stunning results. In ‘Wien Modern’, as in the GMYO, he created a monument no-one else could have conceived. I have lost a collegial, unarrogant and inspiring mentor of my early years, one who powerfully influenced Vienna and the musical world.
The auction house is selling off the furniture and knick-knacks of the early-music pioneer Gustav Leonhardt, who died two years ago this week.
A sample of the auctioneer’s patter: ‘It is not difficult to imagine the strong impression that Leonhardt’s students must have experienced when entering the house and being invited to play music in front of the great master and surrounded by his extraordinary collection. I only wish I had been there myself.. Read more here.
I have written a musical appreciation of the late maestro for Sinfini, based on a professional acquaintance that goes back more than 30 years. You can read it here.
Photo: Claudio Abbado at la Salle Pleyel, Paris, 20 October 2010.
© Fred Toulet/Leemage/Lebrecht
Further appreciation here.