UDINE, ITALY—This will be a very personal article, one that will make no effort to be objective or impartial. It comes straight from the heart.
Monday morning (January 20, 2014) I was in a car traveling from Rimini to Udine. As we neared Bologna, where I had been a student in the mid-1970s, we put on the radio just as a news flash was coming in: The conductor Claudio Abbado had just died at his home in Bologna. On this winter Monday in Italy, there was a lot of breaking news: an earthquake in Campania and Molise; landslides and storms in Liguria that took several lives, including that of a doctor who rushed to aid a patient; and Silvio Berlusconi’s latest attempt to emulate Lazarus or a vampire and rise from the political dead yet again. But with the news that the great Abbado had died, this became the dominant news story of the day.
In my life there have been three conductors—Leonard Bernstein, Claudio Abbado and James Levine—who profoundly affected my development as a man who loves music and has been fortunate to have a lifelong engagement with it. Bernstein was an inspiring teacher as well as a conductor whose passionate and sometimes overwrought performing style sometimes suggested that making music was a transformative experience. Levine speaks with wisdom, love and quiet authority about music and makes it a profound experience for audiences as well as performers.
Claudio Abbado (June 26, 1933-Jan. 20, 2014) had some of the qualities of Bernstein and Levine, but many more of his own that made him so mythical and revered. He was a person of very strong beliefs, although he never attempted to impose them on anyone else. His political beliefs were at the left end of the spectrum and, while he lived by those ideals, they did not condition his relations with artists who might not have shared his views. Right-wing media referred to him as Il Maestro con la Bacchetta Rossa (the conductor with the red baton).
Abbado headed the most prestigious musical institutions, including 18 years at Teatro alla Scala, then the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. He created numerous orchestras to either advance repertory that was not heard elsewhere or to train another generation of musicians. Among these were the Orchestra Sinfonica della Scala, the European Union Youth Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and, ultimately, the Mozart Orchestra in Bologna which, these days, is facing severe financial hardships.
When Abbado took over at La Scala in the late 1960s, the theater was seen as a grand temple of art and a refuge of the rich and powerful. Abbado raised the standard even higher in musical and theatrical terms, but felt it necessary to make it not only relevant but available to marginalized segments of society. Students, workers, the unemployed all were able to attend performances and to be exposed to music that was not part of their lives. In fact, not only did they come to the opera house, but Abbado brought the musicians to schools and factories. His conducting of Verdi and Rossini was the greatest I have ever heard and I still return to his recordings for learning and inspiration.
I came to know, and learn from, Abbado for two years beginning in 1977. I received a Fulbright scholarship that enabled me to work at La Scala and the Piccolo Teatro di Milano as an assistant to the extraordinarily talented and often difficult stage director Giorgio Strehler, whom I revered. Strehler and Abbado collaborated on some of the greatest productions in the history of La Scala, including Don Carlo, Macbeth (with Shirley Verrett and Piero Cappuccilli, followed by Leo Nucci), and an amazing Simon Boccanegra with Mirella Freni, José Carreras, Cappuccilli and Nicolai Ghiaurov.
At a staging rehearsal for the part of Boccanegra in which Amelia sings “Come in quest’ora bruna," Strehler’s direction had Freni sing from very far upstage, audible before she was fully visible. The fact that the soprano was so far away meant that she had to sing while feeling out of sync with the orchestra. Abbado realized this and also knew that the audience would hear the orchestra a fraction of a beat before they heard Amelia if he did not adjust the coordination of the sound from the stage with that from the pit. As I was the person doing the staging, he had me and Freni move together from the spot where she began the aria as she sang. He then had her do it again with me watching and listening in the audience. Each time, he led the orchestra as he intended to do it in performance and had us hear how they changed volume and speed as the aria progressed.
Many conductors might have simply done what they knew to do but, for Abbado, a maestro was conductor and teacher. In this rehearsal he explained to all about how music in the ears is properly integrated with music and action on the stage. Anyone who worked with him remembers his disarming smile, one that evinced his love of music and for his fellow humans, especially young people. He also had amazing eyes and once said, “you can do much with your eyes, in music and in life." With those eyes he communicated love for music and for musicians. He knew every score from memory so, musicians always remarked, he could spend more time looking at them and communicating more deeply with them.
Members of the Berlin Philharmonic have said he made each one of them feel like a soloist. Opera singers, including Nucci and Katia Ricciarelli, speak of how, after performances and some rehearsals, Abbado enjoyed spending time with his casts in casual settings, eating simple food and sharing company. He was a very private man, and a very sweet one, who never made himself the center of attention. For all the reverence in which he was held by colleagues, as a conductor he was content to be first among equals rather than a grand imperious god of the podium.
When the job of music director of the New York Philharmonic came open around 1990, Abbado was courted and seemed close to taking the post. Then, Herbert von Karajan died, leaving his position open with the Berlin Philharmonic. They sought Abbado to replace the Austrian maestro and he opted for Berlin over New York. Our great loss—New York with Levine at the Met, Abbado at the Philharmonic and Bernstein an eminent freelancer who went where he pleased—would have been made the city the unmatched center of superb musical leadership.
Abbado was not a frequent visitor to New York. He conducted only six performances at the Met, Don Carlo in 1968. I have no idea why he never came back. We saw him with the Berliners soon after Sept. 11, 2001, when he and the orchestras gave deeply moving concerts at Carnegie Hall as an effort to use music to help us heal. What was so stunning, that day, is that he had been treated in the previous year for cancer and most of his stomach was removed. Surgeries, and considerable personal suffering, followed. And yet he kept working, conducting, studying. Even as his appearances became less frequent, he spent more time studying and teaching. Until just a few days ago, he was deeply immersed in Schumann’s Third Symphony.
Abbado was a committed environmentalist, something Italy does not have in abundance. He returned to La Scala for a concert in October 2012 after two decades away. He asked the mayor (who did not share his political convictions) to use his fee to help plant 90,000 trees in the city center to help clean the filthy air. She responded that this very wealthy city did not have the funds for such an initiative. When we consider the hundreds of thousands of musical seeds Abbado planted and nourished in his glorious career, I think a fitting tribute would be to start a campaign to plant and nourish trees all over Milan, the city that gave the world the peerless Claudio Abbado, deeply loved and sorely missed.
Photo: Claudio Abbado with Giorgio Strehler, Mirella Freni, Piero Cappuccilli in 'Simon Boccanegra,' 1971 (Teatro alla Scala)