Italian CSO guest conductor Claudio Abbado, 80, drew impassioned performances at Orchestra Hall
By Andrew Patner For Sun-Times Media January 20, 2014 1:10PM
A picture taken on September 14, 1983 in London shows portrait of renowned Italian conductor Claudio Abbado. Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, who pushed to open the music world to a wider public and was loved by orchestras for his gentle manner, died on January 20, 2014 after a stellar career that took him to La Scala in Milan, the Vienna State Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic. AFP PHOTO / LETIKUVA-/AFP/Getty Images
Updated: February 22, 2014 6:17AM
Claudio Abbado, the elegant Italian orchestra leader of refinement, taste and curiosity who was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1982 to 1985, died Monday at his home in Bologna, Italy. He was 80.
A former chief of La Scala, the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Abbado later continued a mostly busy performance and recording schedule as he battled stomach cancer and other illnesses for many years, becoming a deep source of artistic and personal inspiration for many. In Europe his performances with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, a sort of continental all-star team that was one of many ensembles he created, gave him almost cult status.
He also founded the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the European Union Youth Orchestra and was a mentor to Gustavo Dudamel and a conductor/master teacher for the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela.
Current CSO music director Riccardo Muti said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” by the news of Abbado’s death.“His disappearance will strongly impoverish the world of music and art.
“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,” Muti said.
The eminent University of Chicago musicologist and Italian opera expert Philip Gossett in an email saluted “a great conductor and a great musician, brilliant in that universe,” with whom he worked personally in 1984 on restoring Rossini’s “Il viaggio a Rheims” to the repertoire. “Claudio worked closely with scholars, not a position that many conductors of his generation followed.” Although thanks in part to Abbado’s example, “they are more numerous in later generations,” he said
CSO artistic vice-president Martha Gilmer, who worked closely with Abbado when he was the popular principal guest conductor here for three seasons during Georg Solti’s music directorship, recalled his “inquisitiveness. His commitment to a wide range of music, his constant searching were [all] an inspiration.
“The last time I saw him,” Gilmer said in a CSO statement, “he asked me to tell the musicians of the orchestra how much he loved and respected them and the time he had with them.”
His CSO performances of the Mahler symphonies and his Orchestra Hall concert versions of Alban Berg’s Modernist opera “Wozzeck” and Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” were particularly memorable. Quiet but insistent in rehearsals, he drew performances that often gave the sense of taking flight. He displayed keen attention at every moment and his various “shushing” signs with his left hand became his trademark.
Abbado frequently was seen as a logical successor to Solti, going back to the early 1980s. When Solti did announce his intention to retire, Abbado was one of only two candidates for the post, along with Israeli pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim. There are many differing accounts as to Solti’s preference and any actions he might have taken, but then CSO executive director Henry Fogel favored Barenboim and after the announcement in 1989 that the latter would succeed Solti, Abbado returned to conduct the CSO again only to complete recording contract obligations for a Tchaikovsky cycle ending in 1991.
But he and Barenboim continued to work together professionally, particularly with the Berlin Philharmonic when Abbado then succeeded Herbert von Karajan. In a radio interview Monday with the BBC World Service, Barenboim, who was a boy when he first met Abbado, praised him for being “the first conductor to see the ability of young people to produce great music, to start these orchestras. No one did that before. And he was the first, even before the [Berlin] Wall came down, to bring musicians together from East and West. As a performer with him and in these areas that he pioneered I always think of him as a ‘soul brother.’”
Abbado often took political positions that he perceived as anti-fascist and socially committed, including bringing music to factories and spending his own money for tree planting in Milan. Always slender with long, dark hair and a toothy grin belying his shy, serious side, he cut a handsome figure. Chicago baritone and composer Wayland Rogers recalled singing under him in the CSO chorus: “I can’t forget those open, welcoming arms, which embraced the music. All of the women and at least half the men in the chorus were in love with him.”