Claudio Abbado decided at age 7 to become a conductor. He was attending a concert at La Scala, the opera house in his hometown of Milan. That night the orchestra was playing Debussy’s “Three Nocturnes.” During the second, he found himself enraptured by a march that sounded as if it were miles in the distance, yet was being enacted right in front of him. “I decided there and then to be a musician, to be a conductor,” he told a writer years later. “I wanted to realize again this magic thing.”
Most musicians have a similar experience, but this one says something important about Abbado, who died on Monday at his home in Bologna at 80. The experience that so mesmerized him wasn’t a flashy or attention-grabbing one; it was instead something quiet and profoundly interior, in which was encoded a sense of mystery and space. What seemed to excite him about conducting was less the chance to impose his will on musicians than the chance to be part of this enigmatic ritual.
The paradox of Abbado is that this reticent, introspective man managed to climb to the pinnacle of the conducting world, a profession that typically rewards big egos and domineering personalities. He disliked the overbearing Toscanini and felt a greater kinship with the warmth and humanism of Bruno Walter, whom he heard often while a student in Vienna. He could be almost painfully shy and awkward. After a rousing introduction speech at his first rehearsal as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, his first words to the orchestra were: “We begin with Mahler.”
Of course, Abbado had strong convictions and reserves of will; no conductor gets far without such tools. But he always preferred a situation in which musicians coalesced around his vision to imposing it by fiat. And yet, on the podium, he was capable of producing performances that united intellectual depth, sonic refinement, and searing emotional power like few of his peers. This was especially true with composers whom he revered and to whom he returned repeatedly throughout his career: Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Verdi, and especially Alban Berg.
His conducting was not easy to characterize. His podium style was graceful and flowing, and always had a slightly mysterious relationship to the beat he was supposedly giving the orchestra. His rehearsals were unusual as well. “Claudio didn’t say much in rehearsals,” wrote Sarah Willis, a Berlin Philharmonic horn player, in a memorial for The Arts Desk. “[He] preferred to show rather than tell.” On stage, though, “he gave himself up to the music totally — he would just conduct with total abandonment. The intensity of the concerts [was] always a wonderful surprise after having spent the rehearsal just playing through things.”
To understand his achievement, it helps to think about his tenure as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, from 1990 to 2002. This is perhaps the most important conducting job in the world; typical of Abbado, he never considered himself in the running for the job and reportedly was shocked when he received the phone call.
Succeeding the imperious Herbert von Karajan, Abbado lightened the Philharmonic’s luxurious sound, broadened its repertoire, and made contemporary music a larger share of its seasons. The innovations were welcomed by some but generated resistance in the orchestra. Some players found him aloof and uncommunicative and puzzled over why he seemed to give so little firm direction. His performances of new music were brilliant, but standard repertory swung, pendulum-like, between inspired and dull.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Berlin was how quickly he departed, announcing in 1998 that he would leave in 2002 after only a dozen years there. Most of his predecessors stayed in the job until they died. But the last few years of the partnership proved the most rewarding, as if his resignation had triggered a collective understanding of how much they could achieve together. That rapport deepened further in 2000, when Abbado was diagnosed with stomach cancer and had much of his digestive system removed.
You can hear some of the fruits of that relationship in their recordings, especially the Mahler symphonies he did in the late 1990s and a Beethoven cycle from Rome in 2000. (These and others are collected in “The Symphony Edition,” a 41-CD box set issued last year by Deutsche Grammophon.) But to really grasp what Abbado could accomplish you had to hear him live. That was not easy in the United States, and especially in Boston, which he visited infrequently. (He made a few guest appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra early on, and those who heard him lead Mahler’s Second Symphony in 1979 still speak about it with reverence.)
I saw Abbado conduct only twice, both with the Berlin Philharmonic in Boston. They remain two of the very greatest musical events of my life. In 1999, he led Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with an intensity that bordered on the apocalyptic. Even more powerful was a 2001 all-Beethoven concert, barely a month after Sept. 11. Only when he appeared, gaunt and almost spectral, on the stage of Symphony Hall did the toll of his cancer treatment become apparent.
Whether it was due to his own health scare or the still-fresh pain of the attacks, the performances of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and “Egmont” Overture were extraordinary for their dark, glowing sound and raw physical power. It was the best Beethoven performance I’ve ever heard, and the only concert that induced me to seek a musician’s autograph afterward. (The conductor seemed benevolently puzzled by my tongue-tied presence.)
In those final years in Berlin, Abbado seemed to reach the kind of democratic rapport he had always sought with his players, one that more closely approximated chamber music than standard orchestral performance. After his departure, he devoted much of his time to youth orchestras, and was an early supporter of Venezuela’s El Sistema. But in a way the capstone of his career was the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which he reestablished in 2003. Its members were handpicked by Abbado, friends and colleagues who had played under him for years, as well as a surprising number of elite soloists.
It gave only a handful of concerts each year, but those performances — many captured on DVD — constituted an astonishing Indian summer for the frail conductor. His podium movements became less and less demonstrative. Increasingly during rehearsals he exhorted the musicians to listen to and trust each other rather than seeking direction from him. It was almost as though he was trying to lead without leading. “They should feel free to make music,” he told The New York Times in 2009. “I am there for the construction, not to impose.”
One can hardly imagine a conductor of an older generation telling an orchestra that. But that is what made Abbado special. You can see his entire career as a quest for the paradoxical goal of letting go in order to achieve a very precise result. What he sought in an orchestra was less a group of players than a community of listeners. It was an idealistic vision that fell victim to any number of pitfalls along the way. But I suspect that in pursuing it, he was simply honoring those magical sounds from La Scala that set him on the journey in the first place.