Claudio Abbado, the Italian conductor who directed the London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic while serving as a mentor to countless young classical musicians, has died. He was 80.
He died today at about 9 a.m. at his home in Bologna, an official from the city’s press office said. He had suffered from cancer for several years, according to the official, who asked not to be named.
“With his talent, dedication and excellent results achieved at the national and international level over the course of his long career, he will remain a point of reference for the entire country,” Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta wrote in an e-mail sent to media organizations.
An intensely private man who rarely spoke in rehearsal and communicated with his hands instead, Abbado was recognized as much in the rarefied circles of classical music as in the slums of Cuba and Venezuela, where he helped set up youth orchestras for the poorest children.
From his days as assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1960s, Abbado became known for his thorough knowledge of music and his exquisite technique. Yet he underplayed the latter.
“A lot of young conductors believe that technique is everything,” he said. “But believe me, it is nothing. First and foremost, a conductor must know a score intimately. Listen to any of the great postwar conductors -- Toscanini, Walter, Kleiber, Furtwangler. They didn’t have technique, but they did have something to say.”
His admission to the A-list came when Herbert von Karajan invited him to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in the mid-1960s. It was the start of a long and unusually harmonious relationship.
Just as unusual was Abbado’s ability to play symphonic and operatic music equally well. A peerless interpreter of Mahler, Abbado had what fellow conductor Daniel Harding described as the world’s “most beautiful left hand.”
“At heart, I’m just a gardener,” he once remarked.
To fellow artists, he was so much more. Anne Sofie von Otter described him as “the perfect ‘singers’ conductor.’” Adrienne Pieczonka labeled him “the sweetest man.”
Abbado did more than leave a catalog of exceptional live recordings and lift the careers of young conductors such as Harding and Gustavo Dudamel. The maestro who preferred to be called Claudio was a precious link between today’s young musicians and Wilhelm Furtwangler, his own conducting idol.
Away from the world of professional orchestras, Abbado established two youth orchestras that ushered in a new generation of musicians.
In 1978, he founded the European Community Youth Orchestra, whose earliest alumni went on to create the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1982. Four years later, he created the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, with which -- after surgery to remove part of his digestive system -- he toured Peter Stein’s production of “Parsifal” in 2002.
Abbado was born on June 26, 1933, in Milan. Though he had three brothers and a sister, Abbado described himself as “a withdrawn, lonely child.” He was attracted to music after watching a performance at Milan’s La Scala opera house at age 8.
He began his training as a pianist. Initially he was taught by his father, Michelangelo, a violinist and pianist for whom Abbado later admitted feeling “admiration” more than “love.”
During the war, his mother, a trained pianist and children’s author, sheltered a Jewish child from the Fascist government. It was she who sowed the seeds of his lifelong engagement with politics. Young Claudio began by scrawling graffiti in support of the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok -- whose music was then banned in Italy -- and later took music into the factories of Reggio Emilia with his friends Luigi Nono and Maurizio Pollini.
In the mid-1950s, while studying in Vienna to become a pianist and conductor, Abbado auditioned to join the Musikverein Chorus. He sang under Karajan, whose dictatorial style he would later criticize, and Bruno Walter, before traveling to the U.S. in 1958.
There, he scooped the Serge Koussevitsky Award for conducting, and in 1963, won first prize in the Dimitri Mitropoulos Competition, clinching 12-month tenure as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
He was principal conductor then music director of La Scala from 1968 to 1981, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1988, music director of the Vienna State Opera from 1986 to 1991, and music director of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1989.
The Berlin appointment surprised many. While Abbado had a reputation for refinement, his eclectic musical tastes -- from the aristocratic Renaissance madrigalist Gesualdo to provocative Italian modernists -- were viewed with suspicion. He was blamed for the orchestra losing “the Berlin sound.” By the time he announced his departure, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
In the extraordinary coda to his glorious career, he collaborated with his director son, Daniele, on a production of “The Magic Flute” and on the animated memoir of his childhood “The House of Magical Sounds.” He re-founded the illustrious Lucerne Festival Orchestra, bringing its luminous account of Mahler’s Third Symphony to the 2007 BBC Proms. And he spent two months a year working with young musicians in Venezuela.
Abbado had another son, Misha, from a relationship with Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova.