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The great Italian conductor Claudio Abbado blazed a trail around the world – from La Scala Milan to the London Symphony Orchestra, from Chicago to Vienna and Berlin. He was known for his Germanic orchestral repertoire as well as his interest in Rossini and Verdi.
Born in Milan on 26 June 1933, Claudio Abbado was the son of a violinist and composer. His father was his first piano teacher. Young Claudio decided to be a conductor as a child after hearing a performance of Claude Debussy's Nocturnes.
After studying piano, composition, and conducting at the Milan Conservatory, Abbado took up conducting studies at the Vienna Academy of Music. As a young man, he had the opportunity to attend many rehearsals in Milan led by such legends as Toscanini and Furtwängler. He later said that Toscanini's tyrannical manner towards musicians repelled him, and that he resolved to behave in a gentler manner.
In 1958, Abbado won the international Serge Koussevitsky Competition for conductors at the Tanglewood Music Festival which resulted in a number of operatic conducting engagements in Italy. In 1963 he won the Dimitri Mitropoulos Prize for conductors, which enabled him to work for five months with the New York Philharmonic.
Abbado made his début at La Scala, Milan in 1960 going on to serve as its music director from 1968 to 1986. He conducted not only the traditional Italian repertoire but also presented a contemporary opera each year, as well as a concert series devoted to the works of Berg and Mussorgsky.
Abbado also founded the Filarmonica della Scala in 1982, for the performance of orchestral repertoire in concert. He was very keen to increase accessibility to music for lower income audiences.
Abbado conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1965 in a concert at the Salzburg Festival, and became its principal conductor in 1971. He served as music director and conductor for the Vienna State Opera from 1986 to 1991, with notable productions including Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.
In 1965, Abbado made his British debut with the Halle Orchestra, followed by his LSO debut in 1966. He continued to conduct on a regular basis with the LSO until 1979. From 1979 to 1988 he became its principal conductor
From 1982 to 1986 Abbado was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. With both orchestras, he made a number of highly acclaimed recordings for Deutsche Grammophon.
In 1989, the Berlin Philharmonic elected Abbado as their chief conductor to succeed Herbert von Karajan. In 1998, he announced that he would be leaving the Berlin Philharmonic after the expiry of his contract in 2002.
Abbado was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000 and the treatment led to the removal of a portion of his digestive system. After recovering from cancer, he formed the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003, whose concerts were highly acclaimed. He also served as music director of the Orchestra Mozart of Bologna, Italy.
In 2004 Abbado returned to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic and performed Mahler's Symphony No. 6 in a series of recorded live concerts. The resulting CD won Best Orchestral Recording and Record of the Year in Gramophone Magazine's 2006 awards.
In 2005, Abbado won a Grammy Award for his recording of Beethoven's Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 with Martha Argerich.
In September 2007 Abbado announced that he was cancelling all of his forthcoming conducting engagements for the "near future" on the advice of his physicians but two months later he resumed conducting concerts with an engagement in Bologna.
Abbado was celebrated for his interpretations of a wide range of Romantic works, in particular those of Mahler, whose symphonies he has recorded several times. He was also noted for his performances of modern works by composers such as Schoenberg and Stockhausen.
Abbado received numerous awards and recognitions throughout his illustrious career, including the Grand cross of the Légion d'honneur, the Imperial Prize of Japan, and honorary doctorates from the universities of Ferrara, Cambridge, Aberdeen, and Havana. He is survived by his son the opera director Daniele Abbado, and another son Misha, from his relationship with the violinist Viktoria Mullova.