What We Learn from Claudio Abbado

By Shlomo  Maital  


Claudio Abbado

   The great Italian conductor Claudio Abbado died on Monday, age 80.  He passed away at his home in Bologna, Italy.  He had been ill for years.

    We can learn a great deal from this fine man.  Star orchestra conductors often have egos the size of Texas and personalities that combine General Patton and Genghis Khan.  Not Abbado. 

     Abbado used to say,  “Many bad things in the world could be avoided if only people would listen to each other.”  He told this to his musicians:  Listen to each other.  Play as you like, he told them,  clashing violently with the Herbert von Karajan ‘my-way-or-highway’ approach; don’t just wait for me. 

    This combination of respect, empowerment, respect for his musicians, and teaching them respect for one another,  led to crisp, brilliant, lyrical performances.  He broke the rule that great orchestras, like the Berlin Philharmonic, are utterly disciplined, like elite army units.  He got the best out of his orchestras, like La Scala, by getting his musicians to like and respect him, and motivating them to work hard to make extraordinarily beautiful music.    This is true leadership.

     Abbado was an innovator. He encouraged avant garde music.  He performed Manzoni’s “Atomtod”, at the Salzburg Festival – entirely in the dark!

      He once explained his awkwardness in taking curtain calls, citing a conductor, Knappertsbusch, who refused curtain calls entirely.   Abbado said,  “it still embarrasses me to take bows. I’m not a showman.”   In an age when famed conductors are primarily showmen,  Abbado was rare.  He broke the rules. We can learn much from his leadership style.