Italian conductor Abbado remembered as ‘miracle of music’

A group of classical musicians bade farewell last Wednesday to conductor Claudio Abbado, who died Jan 20, by playing near his casket as it stood on view in the Basilica of St. Stephen in Bologna, Italy.

While hundreds of mourners streamed past, the group played Anton Bruckner’s “String Quintet in F Major,” followed by Franz Schubert’s “String Quintet in C Major,” and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous clarinet quintet — all favorites of the acclaimed Italian conductor.

Abbado was revered by many as the outstanding conductor of his generation. In one of many tributes last week, French musicologist Renaud Machart, writing in the Paris newspaper Le Monde, called him “a miracle of music.” Mr. Machart summed him up as “an inspired conductor, profound, cultured, as exceptional directing opera as he was in concert, and open to the music of our time.”

Christoph Eschenbach, permanent conductor of the National Symphony, wrote in an email: “I was a great admirer and enjoyed his friendship. The last wonderful and extremely profound concert of his I saw was on television from the Lucerne Festival — Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 3,” and I am glad that he continues to live with us through many recordings.”

Abbado, who died at age 80 in Bologna, was the principal conductor of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Switzerland, which he formed in 2003 and personally selected all the players.

Mr. Eschenbach recalled how in the 1960s he and Abbado “were the only two allowed to sit in during Herbert von Karajan’s rehearsals” with the Berlin Philharmonic. In 1989, Abbado succeeded the formidable von Karajan as chief of the orchestra.

In an illustrious career spanning more than five decades, Abbado led some of the music world’s most distinguished institutions. He was musical director of La Scala Opera House in Milan — his birthplace — from 1968 to 1986, principal conductor of the Vienna State Opera (1986-1991) and the Berlin Philharmonic (1989-2000), and the main conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony.

In the United States, Abbado was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When Georg Solti, the orchestra’s resident conductor, retired in 1991, Abbado and Daniel Barenboim were the only two candidates for the post. According to The Chicago Tribune, Abbado was the favorite of the public, the press and most of the orchestra, but not of the then-CSO Association President Henry Fogel, who picked Mr. Barenboim.

After being passed over, Abbado never returned to conduct in Chicago. He did, however, continue to serve as occasional guest conductor for the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Abbado last conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in February 1979, and the main work on the program was Mahler’s “Symphony No. 4 in G Major,” with soprano Kiri Te Kanawa as the soloist.

In death, he is invoked as a champion of expanding the standard orchestra repertoire into baroque music before it became fashionable and to include the great turn-of-the century composers — Mahler, Alban Berg and Anton Bruckner — and avant-garde composers such as his friend Luigi Nono.

For the past 13 years, Abbado had been living on borrowed time. In July 2000, he underwent surgery for stomach cancer, and by the following January, he was back on the conductor’s podium. Several remissions kept him alive, but he believed it was the music that had given him another 10 years of life.

Following his initial illness, he had begun to cut back on his international commitments, but he never stopped mentoring talented younger musicians. For example, he played a role in the creation of the European Union Youth Orchestra (originally the European Community Youth Orchestra). More recently, he helped Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra with advice and encouragement.

Orchestras enjoyed working with him. On the podium, he had a minimalist conducting style, but musicians found him inspiring.

At a recent event in Lucerne, American soprano Renee Fleming recalled watching Abbado rehearse with an orchestra. To her surprise, members of the orchestra kept asking him to let them go over passages in the score. Miss Fleming was surprised because orchestra members have a reputation of wanting to end rehearsal sessions, not prolong them.

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