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‘Famed’ Italian conductor dies ‘Mild maestro’

ROME, Jan 20, (Agencies): 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 Monday. He was 80. Abbado died at home 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 as 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.

Abbado, who pushed to open the music world to a wider public and was loved by orchestras for his gentle manner. Abbado believed deeply in what he called the “therapeutic values” of music and staged performances on factory floors of the 1960s, as well as promoting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra from Venezuela.

Just last year, Italy’s president paid tribute to him by naming him senator for life. In an unusually personal message of condolences, President Giorgio Napolitano said Abbado had “honored the great musical tradition of our country in Europe and the rest of the world.” He was known for his musical ability, for conducting his programs without scores and for his rapport with orchestra members. 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. However, in later years, Muti denied there was bad blood between the two. He pointed to Abbado’s performance in the summer of 2011 at the Ravenna Festival, founded and directed by Muti’s wife.

Abbado did eventually make his return to La Scala, after 26 years. He conducted Mahler on Oct 31, 2013, and received a 15-minute standing ovation, shouts of approval and showers of flowers. 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.” He is survived by his second wife and four children. “The world of music and culture has lost an absolute champion,” Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said in a statement. Milan mayor Giuliano Pisapia said he would ask La Scala’s current director to organise a memorial concert for Abbado, who was ceremonially named an Italian Senator for Life by President Giorgio Napolitano last August. Abbado’s surprise appointment as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989 led music critics to call him “the world’s most powerful conductor”. He also had a 46-year span recording some of the world’s most cherished performances for the Deutsche Grammophon label.

He earned pocket money as a church organist before joining the Vienna Academy of Music in 1956. In Vienna, Abbado learned an economical style of conducting and Hans Swarovsky taught him to conduct with one hand tied behind his back. Abbado’s rhythmic energy, drive and love of big, colourful sound placed him squarely in the tradition of late fellow-Italian Arturo Toscanini. During his time at la Scala, Abbado rejigged the usually staid repertory and encouraged young people and less wealthy music lovers to join the well-heeled crowd in the auditorium. Conservative audience members left their seats in protest at Abbado’s addition of avant-garde composers such as Italians Luigi Dallapiccola and the communist Luigi Nono to the repertory.

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