Remembering Claudio Abbado

Tuesday, January 21, 2014 - 11:00 AM

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 Levinewho 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 pleasedwould 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)


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Comments [15]

isabel Consigliere from genova, Italy

Thank you very much Mr. Plotkin for sharing your memories of Maestro Claudio Abbado. He is as we remember, sweet, smiling, humble but strong in his ideas, even shy: someone to remember forever. Isabel

Jul. 31 2015 07:20 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

CLAUDIO ABBADO and just late yesterday, Monday January 27th, at age 94 PETE SEEGER. Two more humanitarian and people-concerned artists would be hard to find. Their like should be memorialized and the testimony should be their recorded, sound and video, music made permanently accessible. R.I.P. you two giants in your respective formats.

Jan. 28 2014 03:57 PM
Ugo Sessi from Rome-Italy

Bravo Fred for your intense memento of a great man and an unparalleled conductor, I was last wednesday night in the S.Cecilia Hall of the Auditorium in Rome where a Maurizio Pollini concert had been rescheduled after the october cancellation due to his illness, and now an unforeseeable Fate has decided that he should play on the eve of his very close friend's funeral. After the President of the Italian Republic Mr. Napolitano said a few moving words dedicating the concert to the Memory of Claudio and a very, very long standing ovation from the audience Pollini played in an intense mood Chopin's 3 Ballads and then Sonata n.2, op.35, with the 3rd movement the Funeral March, what a memorable night!

Jan. 24 2014 10:30 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Thank you, Mr. Plotkin, for sharing your memories and feelings about Maestro Abbado. He was one of my idols whom I never heard in concert or at the opera, so I'm all the more grateful that so many audio and video recordings exist. I have to choose one that always overwhelms me with joy and brings me out of depression, it's the production of Rossini's "Il Viaggio a Reims" with a dream cast at the Vienna State Opera. It's on the internet, and possibly for sale sub rosa. Conducting from memory, as always, the Maestro and Caballe', Valentini-Terrani, Cuberli, Gasdia, Merritt, Raimondi, Furlanetto, Dara, Lopardo and other luminaries bring this gem to life after so many years of languishing in a vault at the House of Ricordi. If this doesn't lift an opera lover's spirits, I don't know what would.

Jan. 23 2014 10:28 AM
Renate Perls from NYC

It has been many a year since we knew one another at the Met, but I have followed your articles, etc. and I thank you for your very special work.

That Abbado is no longer with us is a great loss to music lovers, the more so as my dear friend Sir Colin Davis passed away last year and has been sorely missed. Although classical music has lost two of its greatest conductors, let us be grateful that their recordings are still to be heard even if our hearts hurt.

Again I weep.

Jan. 22 2014 02:51 PM
Marianna from Manhattan

Bravo, Fred Plotkin.

Jan. 22 2014 02:31 PM
Galina Topiler from New Jersey

Thanks so much for the deeply moving tribute to the one of the greatest conductors!

Jan. 22 2014 12:25 PM

Really good article, enjoyed it much.

Jan. 21 2014 09:37 PM
Garrett Sorenson from NYC

Thanks for this lovely tribute. It's wonderful when great musicians are also great human beings. I hope that your suggestion regarding the trees gains momentum!

Jan. 21 2014 08:55 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

CLAUDIO ABBADO and BRUNO WALTER, both geniuses and warm-hearted individuals with humanistic concerns so rare in today's anger-driven policies are to be celebrated for what they accomplished and the many lives they touched and made masterworks of music touch the souls of those whom would listen. Icons like them should be role models and their recorded performances be made more available ti the yet uninitiated. Sophistication of technology should render the comprehensive communication format of musical composition to all and sundry. Thanks FRED for your always full exposition of the latent and more obvious beauties of music, the arts and the culinary pleasures.

Jan. 21 2014 05:11 PM
Cara De Silva from new York

This is a particularly beautiful and moving piece, by you, wonderful Fred P. One doesn't have to have loved Claudio Abbado, though near everyone did, to appreciate the man as he is exquisitely memorialized here from both mind and heart.

Jan. 21 2014 01:59 PM
Andi Lamoreaux

As an ardent fan of Claudio Abbado's music-making, I read your tribute and found myself constantly thinking, "Yes, that's how I felt, too." I was not privileged to know him, though I followed his career and attended many of his performances in Chicago. Thanks for your beautiful memoir of an extraordinary musician and human being.

Jan. 21 2014 01:40 PM
Juan Carlos Correa from Santiago, Chile

Thank you for the fine article. It was very sad to hear about Maestro Abbado's passing. I knew he was ill but the fact that he was still conducting last summer, had given me hope. I think that the job he did with the Berlin Philharmonic was tremendous. I also recall a recording he did of the Brandemburg Concertos, years ago, and so many more memories.

Jan. 21 2014 12:46 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Thanks for this very fine article. I was deeply moved.

Jan. 21 2014 11:12 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Thanks for this very fine article. I was deeply moved.

Jan. 21 2014 11:12 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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