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Italian conductor Claudio Abbado dies aged 80

9:45, 12th February 2013

The Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, former music director of the Teatro alla Scala, has died in Bologna at the age of 80, following a long illness.

Abbado held several positions at La Scala between 1968 and 1986, rising to become artistic director in 1976. He also held the post of music director at the Vienna State Opera from 1986 to 1991, and went on to succeed Herbert von Karajan at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1989 – then regarded the top job in the classical music world.

A message on La Scala website mourned Abbado’s passing while celebrating his legacy: ‘Claudio Abbado has left us. But he will remain at La Scala for ever. This is his theatre: the place that will retain, concretely and tangibly, the mark of the conductor without boundaries, the musician without preconceptions, the man of the theatre who was ready to take risks and the human being whose mind reached out to the world.’ Daniel Barenboim, who led a concert in Abbado’s memory at La Scala, said that the world had lost ‘one of the greatest musicians of the past 50 years’.

Above all, the many tributes that have flooded websites and publications since Abbado’s death have highlighted the maestro’s humanity, gentle mastery and genuineness as hallmarks of his personal style. These qualities also came through in his music-making, where he approached even the biggest orchestral scores like chamber music, coaxing results out of his players through his ability to listen rather than behaving like a podium tyrant.

Abbado was born in Milan to a musical family – both parents taught music – and decided to become a conductor at the age of seven after hearing Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes. He went on to study at Milan’s Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory and with Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Music Academy.

The maestro first came to public attention when he won the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood in 1958, although on his own admission he was astonished to come first. He made his debut at La Scala, Milan, two years later; however, the real turning point in his career came when Karajan invited him to perform Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Salzburg Festival in 1965. This symphony was to become a cornerstone of Abbado’s concert repertoire in the decades that followed.

Aside from his years in Milan, Vienna and Berlin, Abbado was also a principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1987, and in 2003 founded the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. His commitment to working with younger musicians led him to establish the European Union Youth Orchestra (later to become the Chamber Orchestra of Europe) as well as the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and the Orchestra Mozart.

Abbado leaves behind him an extensive recording legacy with Deutsche Grammophon, his label for 46 years. In July 2013, DG released a 41-CD Abbado edition covering the core works of the symphonic repertoire, and in February 2014 will release a new recording of Mozart’s Piano Concertos K466 and 467 with Martha Argerich.

Claudio Abbado, conductor, born 26 June 1933; died 20 January 2014

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