Photo credit: University Musical Society, © Creative Commons
News of Claudio Abbado's death earlier today at the age of 80 has been spreading quickly across all news channels. A seminal figure in 20th-century orchestral conducting, Abbado led the finest orchestras in the world—among them, the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra—during an expansive career of over 50 years.
Although Abbado shunned the spotlight and never complied with the conductor-as-superstar notion afflicting many of today's musical leaders, he was a true ambassador of his art form during the heyday of the classical-music recording market. His lush, emotional, and cohesive accounts of all the major repertoire—including multiple accounts of the symphonic cycles of Mahler, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky—are still readily available, ready to serve as points of inspiration for young conductors in the generations to come.
The one and only time I had the chance to see Mr. Abbado conduct was a Berlin Philharmonic program at Carnegie Hall in early October, 2001. The Philharmonic was on a brief U.S. tour marking the conductor's final season as their music director. Three nights at Carnegie set to include large-scale works by Mahler, Schoenberg, and Webern were changed just prior to the orchestra's departure from Germany; after the events of September 11th, the Philharmonic decided to travel with a much smaller ensemble, and would only perform the works of Beethoven during their stay—communicating the power of the human spirit after such devastating events.
Prior to social media channels being able to relay such dynamic changes in programming, I was inevitably disappointed when opening my program that evening to find that, rather than Mahler's Seventh Symphony, I was to hear Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth symphonies—standard warhorses that I could really do without enduring again.
However, under Abbado's baton, it was like hearing these works in a completely new light: the phrasing was pristine and elegant; the orchestral colors were dark and vibrant; and the senses of pacing and compositional architecture were crystal clear. The drama of the Fifth's iconic first movement has never been recreated in any other performance or recording I've heard, and the Sixth Symphony's tempestuous storm showed very well the lineage that brought German orchestral music from Beethoven straight through to Wagner. I left the hall that night feeling like I had a new lease on my musical life. Abbado's humble ascent to the podium juxtaposed with the mastery he showed during the performance set a new standard for the art form I had so loved since a child.
The Berlin Philharmonic's current music director, Sir Simon Rattle, spoke today of a recent conversation he had with the Italian maestro, noting that Abbado had said of his health problems:
"Simon, my illness was terrible, but the results have not been all bad: I feel that somehow I hear from the inside of my body, as if the loss of my stomach gave me internal ears. I cannot express how wonderful that feels. And I still feel that music saved my life in that time!"
Let’s hope that Abbado's musical legacy continues to provide us all with the tools needed to develop our own "internal ears." For those who never had the chance to see him, below is a small sample, from 2011.