NEW YORK — 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 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, insisting that using the score meant that he did not know the work adequately.
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.
Reviewing a Beethoven concert by the Berlin Philharmonic in New York City in 2001, Bernard Holland wrote in The New York Times: “Much-performed music needs different approaches in order to survive, and Mr. Abbado had his own. First, any sound worth making must be a beautiful one. Beethoven’s rough surfaces are sanded and polished to a shine. The sweep of a melodic line takes precedence over the absolute clarity of inner voices.”
In the opera house, Mr. Abbado’s repertoire 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 repertoire 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.
Like other opera conductors who came of age after World War II, he preferred to perform Verdi and other Italian Romantics in modern scholarly editions, in which opera house traditions like interpolated high notes were eliminated and material that had been cut was restored. In the mid-1970s, for example, he began to present the restored, five-hour version of Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” And his 1984 Pesaro Festival performance (and subsequent recording) of Rossini’s long-lost “Il Viaggio a Reims” helped find that work a place in the repertory.
Contemporary music was close to Mr. Abbado’s heart as well. He maintained a fondness for the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and championed new works by Luigi Nono, Krzysztof Penderecki, Goffredo Petrassi, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Giacomo Manzoni.
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.
In 1980, it was widely reported that the Chicago Symphony had tapped him to succeed Sir Georg Solti in 1982. It didn’t happen that way; Solti remained on the podium for several more years. But in 1982 Mr. Abbado was named principal guest conductor in Chicago, a post he held until 1986.
In 1989 he was again the favored candidate of a top American orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, where he had been an assistant conductor early in his career. Just when negotiations reached the point where Mr. Abbado was reported to be looking for an apartment in Manhattan, the Berlin Philharmonic named him to succeed Herbert von Karajan as its music director. He held that position until 2002.
In interviews, Mr. Abbado was often guarded and succinct. But he had strong opinions on many subjects, and when he felt comfortable he would discuss them with the same incisiveness that he brought to his music making. About the relationship between politics and art, for example, he told a Times interviewer:
“In life every man has to take a position. When people say, ‘Oh, he is a musician, why should he talk about politics?’ this is stupid. I did a concert against fascism in Italy at La Scala. It was at the time of the election, and the fascists were very strong. In Italy, the opposition to fascism is communism, but it is not like it is in America.
“I myself, however, belong to no party. I voted for the Communists simply because they were the opposition to the fascists. But I disagree with both Italian and Russian communism on many things. My line is very clear. I am for freedom. Everything that is not for freedom I protest.”
Mr. Abbado was born in Milan to a family that traced its roots in the city to the 13th century. 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. The pivotal moment, he said, came during a performance of Debussy’s “Nocturnes” by the La Scala orchestra. He was further encouraged when Leonard Bernstein came to Milan in 1949 to conduct a performance in which Abbado’s father was the violin soloist. Bernstein reportedly told the young musician that he had “a conductor’s eyes.”
In 1958, Mr. Abbado won the Koussevitzky Prize for young conductors at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood.
American audiences saw Mr. Abbado primarily when he toured with a European orchestra he directed. Although he said that he admired American orchestral playing, he conducted only a handful of American orchestras, principally the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic.
Mr. Abbado was enthusiastic about working with young musicians. In 1978 he founded the European Community Youth Orchestra for musicians between 14 and 20 and toured with it several times. When some of the orchestra’s musicians passed the upper age limit and decided to form a new orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Mr. Abbado signed on as artistic adviser and frequent conductor.
He was a prolific builder of orchestras. He formed the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 1986, and in 1997 he and former members of that ensemble founded the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a touring ensemble. In 1992, soon after he became music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, he cofounded Berlin Encounters, a project that brought together young musicians and experienced players. He founded the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003, with players from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra as its core.
Among Mr. Abbado’s many honors were the Gran Croce, Italy’s highest civilian honor; the Legion of Honor from France; and the Bundesverdienstkreuz from Germany.
Mr. Abbado disdained the trappings of a modern, media-driven conducting career. As communicative as his podium manner was, he seemed slightly awkward coming on and off the stage. Explaining this in a 1973 interview, he compared himself to conductor Hans Knappertsbusch, whose habit was to refuse curtain calls.
“I used to be somewhat like that,” he said. “Now I take the time to be polite. Look, I like the reaction of the audience. I’m not sincere if I don’t say that, but it still embarrasses me to take bows. I’m not a showman.”
Mr. Abbado leaves his second wife and four children.