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Abbado, Claudio

(b Milan, 26 June 1933). Italian conductor. Son of the violinist and


teacher Michelangelo Abbado, he heard Debussys Nocturnesas a
small boy and immediately had the ambition to become a conductor.
Soon after the war he attended rehearsals by Furtwngler and
Toscanini in Milan; his quiet, undemonstrative manner on the podium
derives in part from his aversion to the dictatorial approach he
witnessed in Toscanini. He first learnt the piano with his father, and
studied at the Milan Conservatory until 1955, before going to the
Vienna Music Academy to study conducting with Hans Swarowsky.
In 1958 he won the Koussevitzky Competition, and a series of
concert and operatic engagements in Italy followed. His career was
further boosted when he won the Mitropoulos Prize in 1963 and
worked for five months with the New York PO. His international
success was rapid, and led to his first appearances at the Salzburg
Festival in 1965, where he conducted Giacomo Manzonis Atomtod,
and to his first recordings. Although Abbados speciality was initially
20th-century music, he was quickly welcomed as a clear-headed
interpreter of the central Classical and Romantic repertory, with
symphonies by Beethoven and Mendelssohn among his first
recordings.
Abbados dbut as an operatic conductor took place in Trieste in
1958, with Prokofievs The Love for Three Oranges, and throughout
his career he has sought to include 20th-century operas alongside
the regular repertory. His 1960 dbut at La Scala was in a concert
celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of Alessandro Scarlatti;
the following year he began to conduct opera there, and in 1968 he
directed the opening performance of the Scala season, Bellinis I
Capuleti e i Montecchi. The same year he made his Covent Garden
dbut with Don Carlos, the first time he had conducted Verdi.
Notable among his later successes at Covent Garden was Boris
Godunov in 1983. He became resident conductor of La Scala in
1969, music director two years later, and chief conductor from 1980
to 1986. During his years there he was always adventurous in
developing the repertory, reviving rare Italian operas, introducing

new ones and giving special attention to Berg, Musorgsky, Debussy


and Rossini. He took the La Scala company on tour in Europe
(including memorable performances of Simon Boccanegra at Covent
Garden in 1976), the USA and Japan. Abbado made his dbut at the
Vienna Staatsoper (with Simon Boccanegra) in 1984, and two years
later he became the companys music director. His successes in
Vienna have included new productions
of Wozzeck,Khovanshchina, Un ballo in maschera and Don Carlos,
as well as Rossinis Litaliana in Algeri and Il viaggio a Reims, the
opera he had rescued from total neglect in performances at the 1984
Pesaro Festival with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe; the
recording he made then was among his most successful ever. With
the same orchestra he also conducted Schuberts Fierrabras, both in
the opera house (1988) and on disc.
Abbado became principal conductor of the LSO in 1979 and was
music director from 1983 to 1986, making many recordings with the
orchestra. From 1982 to 1985 he was principal guest conductor of
the Chicago SO, and in 1990 he became chief conductor of the
Berlin PO in succession to Karajan. During his years in that post he
has effectively sustained the orchestras high standards while
introducing considerably more 20th-century music into its
programmes. In 1999 he announced that he would be leaving his
Berlin post in 2002.
Abbado has always devoted special attention to the work of young
musicians. He founded the European Community Youth Orchestra in
1978 and has remained music director, touring with it on many
occasions. He is also founder and music director of the Gustav
Mahler Youth Orchestra, involving musicians from outside the
European Community, and artistic director of the Chamber Orchestra
of Europe, founded by former members of the European Community
Youth Orchestra. Abbados recording career spans a wide repertory,
embracing the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler,
Mendelssohn and Schubert, the complete orchestral works of Ravel,
many contemporary works (including Nonos Como una ola de
fuerza y luz, written for him and Maurizio Pollini) and over a dozen
complete opera recordings, among them outstanding readings

of Litaliana in Algeri,Simon Boccanegra, Boris


Godunov, Wozzeck and Pellas et Mlisande. Quiet and
unflamboyant, he rarely fails to draw exceptionally taut, fresh and
refined playing from orchestras, although his interpretations of the
standard classics tend to be reliably direct rather than distinctive. His
direction of opera is generally compelling in its clarity, rhythmic
vitality and command of structure. Like most of his younger Italian
colleagues, he consistently avoids the vulgarities of the old Italian
tradition and insists on a scholarly approach to texts.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
F. Rosti, ed.: Musica maestri! Il direttore dorchestra tramito e
mestiere (Milan, 1985)
J.L. Holmes: Conductors: a Record Collectors
Guide (London, 1988), 1316
R. Chesterman, ed.: Conductors in
Conversation (London, 1990)
R. Cowan: Abbado in Berlin, Gramophone, lxxi/June (1994),
1719
J. Allison: Claudio Abbado, Opera, xlix (1998), 76875
EDWARD GREENFIELD