Claudio Abbado, a star in the great generation of Italian conductors who was revered by musicians in the world’s leading orchestras for developing a strong rapport with them while still allowing them their independence, died on Monday. He was 80.
Abbado died in Bologna after a long illness, said Raffaella Grimaudo, spokeswoman for the Bologna mayor’s office.
Abbado made his debut in 1960 at La Scala in his home city of Milan and went on to be its musical director for nearly 20 years. Among his many other stints were as musical director of the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philarmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra and chief guest conductor of the Chicago Philharmonic.
Even as he battled illness in his later years, sharply cutting back on his appearances, Abbado founded his own all-star orchestra in Lucerne, Switzerland, and devoted more time to training young musicians and founding youth orchestras in Europe. Just last year Italy’s president honored him by naming him senator for life.
Abbado had suffered health problems for many years, resigning his Vienna Opera post for unspecified health reasons in 1991 and then undergoing stomach cancer surgery in 2000.
La Scala said illness forced the cancellation of two highly anticipated concerts in 2010 that were to have marked his return to the Milan opera house for the first time in 25 years and be the 50th anniversary of his conducting debut. The excitement had been such that Abbado had requested that 90,000 trees be planted in his name for the benefit of Milan residents as a living memorial to mark his return to the city. The project was later abandoned by the city as too costly.
Italian media reported on tensions between Abbado and his successor at La Scala, Riccardo Muti. Muti invited Abbado to stage “Elektra” at the opera house, but the production was never put on due to apparent misunderstandings Muti expected La Scala’s orchestra and chorus to perform, while Abbado was planning to bring musicians from Vienna.
Abbado was born June 26, 1933, into a family of musicians, studying with his violinist father, Michelangelo Abbado, at the Milan Conservatory. He also studied composition and conducting and took cello and organ courses. He went on to study conducting in Vienna and in 1958 won the Koussevitsky Competition, bringing him to the attention of the Italian musical world.
Critics said Abbado had a special touch with orchestra members, giving them a degree of independence that assured their loyalty.
Associated Press opera critic Mike Silverman in a 2011 review of a new recording of Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,” wrote that Abbado conducting at the Lucerne Festival in 2010 made “an energetic reading of the score that’s often brisk but never merely businesslike.”
In the great choral scenes, he said, Abbado “slows down the tempo just enough to allow us to savor the grandeur of Beethoven’s vision.”