Claudio Abbado, one of the most revered and best loved conductors of his generation, has died. He was 80 years old.
Over a distinguished career that saw him conducting at the world’s most famous opera houses and concert halls for well over half a century, the list of prestigious posts that Abbado held included principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, music director of La Scala opera house in Milan and principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Perhaps, though, one of the posts for which he will be most fondly remembered is as music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, an exceptional ad hoc ensemble that has been running on a seasonal basis since 2003, with Abbado personally selecting its players. In September 2008, David Nice wrote in BBC Music Magazine that the orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Symphonies were ‘easily the greatest orchestral music-making of the 21st century so far’, a sentiment regularly echoed elsewhere.
Born in Milan in 1933, Abbado studied in his home city and at the Vienna Conservatory before, in 1958, he propelled himself to fame by winning the Serge Koussevitzky Competition for conductors at the Tanglewood Festival in the US. That win, plus another at the Dimitri Mitropoulos Prize five years later, led to him conducting major orchestras both in Italy and the US.
In 1960, Abbado conducted at La Scala for the first time, beginning a relationship that would prove both long-lasting and of major significance. Appointed as music director in 1968, his tenure saw the foundation of the Filarmonica della Scala orchestra in 1982 along with a number of moves aimed at widening the opera house’s audience base. He also championed the work of contemporary composers such as Berio and Stockhausen.
Abbado’s departure from La Scala in 1986 was followed two years later by the end of his time as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, a position he had taken up in 1977. His next destination was Berlin, where he took on the daunting challenge of leading the Berlin Philharmonic after the death of Herbert von Karajan.
Abbado’s spell in the German capital, which lasted from 1989 to 1998, was an outstanding success, and many of the recordings he made with the orchestra have gone on to enjoy cult status – these include their second complete Beethoven Symphony cycle, about which BBC Music Magazine’s Michael Tanner wrote that there is ‘no modern set that I would rather hear than these’, adding that ‘it really does make you hear these works afresh, and no lover of Beethoven can fail to revel in and learn from it.’
Though Abbado’s career after leaving Berlin was beset by ill health – he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000 – his reputation as a conductor continued to soar, not just at the helm of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra but also with ensembles such as the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and his own Orchestra Mozart.
An inspiring mentor to and champion of many young conductors, not least the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel who described him as being ‘like a father’ (BBC Music Magazine, June 2008), Abbado was universally adored by his players. Among the many awards and honours he received over the course of his life, one of the most prestigious came in August 2013, when he was appointed as a Senator for life in Italy.