Obituary: Claudio Abbado / Italian conductor with global reach

June 26, 1933 - Jan. 20, 2014

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Claudio Abbado, a conductor whose refined interpretations of a large symphonic and operatic repertory won him the directorships of several of the world's most revered musical institutions -- including La Scala, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna State Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic -- died Monday at his home in Bologna, Italy. He was 80.

Raffaella Grimaudo, a spokeswoman for the Bologna mayor's office, announced the death without giving a specific cause, saying it followed a long illness.

President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy paid tribute in a statement, saying Mr. Abbado had "honored the great musical tradition of our country in Europe and all over the world."

Mr. Abbado was known for the directness and musicality of his performances. He almost always conducted from memory.

He was a particularly lyrical interpreter of Mahler, whose richly emotional language he had absorbed as a student in Vienna. But he was also a distinguished conductor of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and he had a flair for Russian symphonic music.

In the opera house, Mr. Abbado's repertory was similarly broad: he made his professional debut with Prokofiev's "Love for Three Oranges," in Trieste in 1958, and had successes with productions of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" and "Khovanshchina." His repertory included Mozart and Wagner as well, but his real specialties were Rossini and Verdi, whose music he performed with respect for the artistry they embody rather than the showmanship they allow, which he disliked.

It was a point of pride for Mr. Abbado that he never actively sought the music directorship of any orchestra. But directorships came his way anyway.

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.

Away from the world of professional orchestras, Mr. Abbado established two youth orchestras that ushered in a new generation of musicians.

Among his disciples is Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 2008.

"I remember his great activities for young musicians, especially when I benefited as assistant at the Gustav Mahler [Youth Orchestra]," Mr. Honeck wrote in a post on his Facebook page Monday, referring to that stint in Vienna in 1987.

Mr. Abbado came to Pittsburgh on Oct. 4-6, 1974, to conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection."

The experience was one of the "greatest memorable performances of my career as a music critic," recalled Robert Croan, senior classical music critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"It was a big piece and very difficult to pull off," Mr. Croan said. "He brought forth the emotion of the piece without being too sentimental. It was the best live performance I have ever heard of that difficult work."

Through a personal connection with Rolando Bozzolla and his wife Claudia Pinza, who live in Bellevue, Mr. Abbado nearly brought the La Scala opera company to Pittsburgh in 1979, but plans fell through for the entire tour because of lack of funds from the Italian government, which was subsidizing the tour. Ms. Pinza, daughter of the legendary basso Ezio Pinza, is a renowned voice teacher.

Mr. Abbado was born in Milan on June 26, 1933. His father, Michelangelo, was a violinist and teacher at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan; his older brother, Marcello, became the director of the school.

Claudio began his musical studies on the violin and piano with his parents when he was 8, but he quickly set his sights on the podium.

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