« Sudoku Pen | Home | Steering Wheel Laptop Holder — Episode 2: WheelDesk »

August 25, 2007

Why Claudio Abbado conducts every concert as if it could be his last

Because it's true.

Daniel J. Wakin's elegiac article in the August 21, 2007 New York Times featured his visit with the 74-year-old master (above, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1997 in a scintillating performance of the Prelude of Bizet's Carmen) in Lucerne, Switzerland, where he led the Lucerne Festival Orchestra's performance of Mahler's Third Symphony last weekend.

Here's the story.

    For a Maestro, Energy Is the Only Limitation

    His baton kept a tight but flowing beat as his left hand, at the end of a thin wrist, went its own way, deftly sculpturing phrases and so often asking for less, less, less.

    Claudio Abbado sat before the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, rehearsing Mahler’s Third Symphony last Wednesday, speaking softly in German, English and Italian to the collection of international musicians in the resident ensemble. They were closely attentive. He had only to lower his baton for them to stop playing — no calls for quiet.

    And at the concert on Sunday evening, the usually staid Swiss greeted the performance with a roar. His most devoted fans, the “Abbadiani,” rained flowers down from the balcony. Clapping rhythmically, the audience summoned him back for a solo bow after the orchestra had left the stage.

    When this maestro conducts these days, it is a choice occasion. At 74, his schedule reduced after his recovery from stomach cancer six years ago, Mr. Abbado has mostly turned away from the kind of grand institutions he once led — La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic — and now pours his limited energies mainly into a few bursts of concerts.

    He has distilled away the distractions of modern conductorhood, like administration, dealing with unions and constant travel. He plays the music he wants with the musicians he chooses.

    “I try to do less and less; the doctor says so,” Mr. Abbado said during an interview in the elegant lakeside villa lent to him for his two-week stay at the Lucerne Festival. It was the first in a series of conversations during the week of rehearsals and performances for the Mahler Third. “But always it is a passion, a love for music — for me.”

    Talking about it, though, is not a passion. Mr. Abbado seems to prefer discussing environmental issues (he praises California’s effort to reduce highway emissions and mentions his new hybrid car) and the beloved garden at his villa in Sardinia, where he said he had put in 9,000 plants.

    In October Mr. Abbado has a much-anticipated appointment in the United States. He travels to New York with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, founded at his suggestion in 2003, after a stop at the London Proms festival on Wednesday. At Carnegie Hall he will lead three concerts, twice playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (programmed, he said, at Carnegie’s request) and the Mahler.

    Mr. Abbado has not conducted in the United States since he performed at Carnegie Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

    Except for several weeks with the festival orchestra in the summer, he confines his activities to the itinerant Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which grew out of a youth orchestra he founded; the Mozart Orchestra, another small ensemble, based in Bologna, Italy, of which he is the artistic director; and a week with the Berlin Philharmonic. Altogether he conducts about 30 to 35 concerts a season, dividing his time between homes in Bologna and Sardinia.

    Otherwise he studies unfamiliar works and spends time with family and friends (including the Italian actor Roberto Benigni, who was on hand for the Lucerne performances, one of the first on his feet Sunday night). He also reads. Right now he is taken with the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

    “He is a great, great writer,” Mr. Abbado said. “Not so famous, like he should be.”

    He refuses to quantify his musical activity.

    “I’m not working,” he said. “I’m carrying out a passion.”

    “It was always like this, since I was 7 years old,” he said in a later conversation. “It was a dream, to make magic things with sounds. I never thought about career, or to find important positions. I was always very lucky to have the best orchestras in America or Europe.”

    He expresses the same optimism about his illness. Doctors removed much of his stomach, and he must now eat only small amounts at a time.

    “I found a new life, without a stomach,” he said. “I think differently. My senses are different.”

    His musical sense is different too.

    “I hear more lines now,” he said. “I hear sounds I never heard before.”

    The phrase that often comes to his lips is “no limits,” in the sense of what can be accomplished musically.

    “Understand, in life there are always limits,” he said. “I try to find a way to avoid limits, to do something new.”

    Mr. Abbado has always been a master builder of orchestras: with young, enthusiastic, moldable members, and no union restrictions.

    At La Scala he created a philharmonic version of the pit orchestra. He founded the European Union Youth Orchestra in 1978, and then the Mahler Youth Orchestra in 1986 because, he said, the youth orchestra’s organizers refused to allow members from outside the European Union.

    And he suggested the establishment of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which has the Mahler Chamber Orchestra as its core, joined by several score other top musicians who have worked with Mr. Abbado through the years. The musicians seem to have an immense affection for him.

    When he speaks of avoiding limits, Mr. Abbado also means breaking out of narrow thinking, offering several anecdotes to explain. As a child in Milan during World War II, he prompted a visit from Gestapo officers by writing the graffito “Viva Bartok” on a wall. They thought it might be a reference to a partisan, he said. He proved otherwise by showing them a score by the composer.

    But why, he was asked in the interview, did he write it? “Because I love Bartok!” he answered.

    Years later the Italian tax police searched his home, convinced he had foreign bank accounts, Mr. Abbado recounted. An official triumphantly produced an incriminating letter, listing a series of mysterious numbers beginning with the letter K. Mr. Abbado spoiled his victory by producing a recording of Mozart’s pieces, with the titles followed by Köchel catalog numbers.

    “I gave him the disc,” Mr. Abbado said. “The mentality is always this: closed.”

    He is usually immersed in one big project; next year it will be Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” He plans to give 11 performances of it with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Reggio Emilia, Ferrara and Modena in Italy; Madrid; and Baden-Baden, Germany. The German filmmaker Chris Kraus will provide the stage direction.

    Asked why he chose the work, Mr. Abbado said simply, “It’s a masterpiece I haven’t done yet.”

    “I found the ideal of a singspiel with text and music in between,” he said later. “I adore, always, great composers who work and work and work, and are never happy until they can find something new.”

    Mr. Abbado moves with the deliberateness of someone conserving his strength and ended one rehearsal an hour early, apparently out of fatigue. His comments to the orchestra were brief and often focused on balance.

    “He’s extremely clear, very analytical,” said Kolja Blacher, the concertmaster.

    After the dress rehearsal for the Mahler performances Mr. Abbado sat in his dressing room, appearing drained while discussing a few spots in the score with his assistants. A respectful hush filled the room. He waved away a toasted ham sandwich and ate half a banana.

    Mr. Abbado is perceived as a Mahler specialist, but he objects to being labeled and will not be drawn out on his conception of a work.

    “Every time I’m doing one piece — it could be the First or Second or the Ninth — I’m in love,” he said. “When you are in love with somebody, it’s something.”

    And if the Mahler Third were a woman, he was asked, how would he describe her? Mr. Abbado laughed.

    “You mean I should say which actress I love?” he said. “I don’t know any woman in six movements.”

August 25, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Why Claudio Abbado conducts every concert as if it could be his last:


iz nus

Posted by: John | Jan 23, 2008 3:47:27 PM

Oh, man. I just used up an hour sitting here watching Abbado conducting stuff. He is SO wonderful, and one of those conductors whose "beat" even a complete musical ignoramus could figure out. You can see his ictus and everything! And you can tell that the musicians really love playing for him. (Believe me, you can usually tell when musicians DON'T love playing for a conductor.)

You must (well, somebody must, but probably nobody will) check out the William Tell Overture w/ Berlin Philharmonic outdoors under the tent.

At YouTube: Rossini - William Tell overture (Part 1)
(Then watch Part 2. The ones w/ Claudio Abbado and the Berliners. Natch.)
(Oh shut up and just type it. Talent like that deserves a little work. I don't know nothin about no computer machinery.)

Old chestnuts like this are so much fun to play, and Abbado wrings every bit of juice out without it ever being vulgar. Don't skip part 2, it's the "cartoon" part; it starts right up with the "calm" after the storm (lovely flute and English horn duet) and when they kick into the horse chase part, you can tell the orchestra's having a ball. (It starts raining right at the "storm" section and when the audience's umbrellas start unfurling Abbado and the musicians get a real kick out of it.) Great.

Posted by: Flautist | Aug 25, 2007 8:49:43 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.