Even in early childhood, Claudio Abbado was overcome by music's magic. The world-famous conductor is known not only for his musical talents, but also for social engagement. He celebrated his 80th birthday on June 26.
Claudio Abbado is a wanderer between worlds: Celebrated by audiences at some of the world's most prestigious venues, he prefers to retreat in his free time. One of his favorite refuges can be found on Sardinia's west coast, where he has cultivated a coastal garden for decades that includes bougainvillea and banana trees in an almost wasteful abundance. It's at this idyllic spot halfway between Italy and Spain that Abbado summons the energy for his fast-paced career.
Born on June 26, 1933, in Milan, Abbado had contact with music right from the start. His father Michelangelo, a violinist and teacher at a conservatory, often played at home with his friends. His mother, Maria Carmela, was a pianist and children's book author, who inspired his love of piano.
"I grew up with the trios by Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven," recalls the conductor, who had his musical awakening in Milan's Teatro alla Scala. "When I heard Claude Debussy's 'Noctures,' I immediately felt a desire to create this music one day myself."
At 16, Abbado began studying in Milan - piano, composition, harmonics, counterpoint and, eventually, orchestra conducting. After completing his degree in 1953, he toured with various chamber music ensembles. But he wasn't looking to become a star at the time, ignoring conductor Zubin Metha's offer to go to Vienna and instead accepted a teaching position in Parma.
However, he soon went on to receive two highly-regarded prizes for conductors, served as an assistant to Leonard Bernstein and debuted at the renowned Salzburg Festival.
In 1968, he was offered a post with the Scala in Milan, and with that, the foundation for his unstoppable career was laid.
The maestro in dialogue
Claudio Abbado could soon be seen at the world's greatest podiums, whether in Milan, London, Chicago, Vienna or Berlin. In contrast to Arturo Toscanini, whose presence at the Scala often induced fear, Abbado preferred dialogue with the musicians to an authoritarian approach.
"The most important thing is that everyone listens to each other," he said.
The result is a chamber music feel even among very large orchestras, in which everyone seems to take into account others' voices. However, Abbado is also a man of few words as a conductor, communicating primarily through glances and gestures.
He has been relentless in helping young talents start their careers and, in the late 1970s, was one of the founding fathers of the European Community Youth Orchestra, now called the European Union Youth Orchestra.
In 1986, he founded the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, which helped bring together musicians from Eastern and Western Europe even before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The collective has resulted in a wide-ranging orchestral family whose members can be found in renowned orchestras around the world.
Art for everyone
Abbado has earned his fame not just as a masterful interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler or Bruckner but also as a musical trailblazer. As the Scala's creative director during the political upheaval of the post-1968 era, he opened up the tradition-laden opera house to workers and students. Together with the composer Luigi Nono and pianist Maurizio Pollini, he conducted concerts in factories to win over new audiences.
As the general music director for the city of Vienna, he used the Wien Modern festival to establish a connection between contemporary composers, visual art, dance and film.
Even after German reunification, Abbado, as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1989 to 2002, built bridges between concert halls, theaters, film houses and museums.
"Berlin is, for me, the most cosmopolitan city," he continues to say.
By crossing artistic boundaries, the Italian maestro tried long before many others to make art accessible to all parts of society.
"Culture is a common good in society, and just as necessary for life as water," he said in a recent interview on Italian television in response to a question about severe cuts to state financing of cultural activities in the country.
"Theaters, libraries, museums and movie theaters are like little aqueducts," he added.
Abbado knows well that music can do more than just comfort during difficult times; it can bring people together. Both facets were evident during his benefit concerts following earthquakes in recent years in Italy. With tears in his eyes, he turned to a thankful audience after conducting Schubert's "Tragic" symphony in the city of L'Aquila, which was devastated by a quake in 2009. And after another severe earthquake in the Emilia-Romagna region in 2012, Abbado traveled there with his orchestras to collect money for the restoration of the historic Teatro Comunale in the city of Ferrara.
His relief efforts have extended beyond Italy, as well. In October 2013, he will travel to northeastern Japan, where the 2011 tsunami wreaked havoc, to perform in a mobile concert hall as part of a project initiated by the Lucerne Festival. Meanwhile, his Mozart Orchestra is heading up projects with sick children and prisoners in Bologna, and a country-wide youth orchestra system initiated with Abbado's help is promoting musical education among children and young people from areas considered socially weak.
Environmental issues are another key topic for Abbado. In Sardinia, he helped turned a landfill into a nature preserve that is freely open to pedestrians. And in big cities like Milan, where he campaigned in vain for the addition of 90,000 new trees, the clean energy proponent has urged people to reduce auto traffic.
A big heart and a passion for discovery have shaped Claudio Abbado's life. "I don't accept any boundaries, and I am always searching for new things," he said, adding, "Because once someone thinks they know everything, then life is already over."