Today's Classical Music Video

Friday, January 24, 2014

Claudio Abbado In Memoriam (1933-2014)

Claudio Abbado's passing last week was not unexpected - he had been seriously ill for some time - but it came as a heavy blow to those who had known him and admired his work. In that number were thousands of young people who had played in orchestras he had created. And there were many older musicians too who had been devoted to Abbado and his kind of music-making.

Abbado was a shy but dedicated and determined man for whom music came first. He was not interested in personal glory, only in serving the music he loved. In that respect and in many others he was following in the footsteps of his compatriot Arturo Toscanini. Unlike Toscanini he rarely if ever lost his temper and was known more for his whispering than his shouting. But musicians knew from the look on his face when he was unhappy and sensed how it pained him to hear poor playing. Like Toscanini, Abbado conducted for many years at La Scala, and late in life had the honor of having an orchestra created for him. For Toscanini it was the NBC Symphony, and for Abbado, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. In both cases the conductors got results that were exceptional.

In Europe Abbado was perhaps the foremost conductor of his generation. Although he grew up in Italy and called it home throughout his life he held important posts in Berlin and Vienna. He succeeded Karajan as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and headed the Vienna State Opera for several years. But he had a particularly close connection with La Scala where he was music director from 1968 to 1986.

He was also in great demand in the United States. He was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony in the 1980s and he was expected to succeed Sir Georg Solti as music director. But the post was offered to Barenboim instead. In Chicago he recorded extensively, including a complete cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies. In the U.K. he is fondly remembered for his tenure as head of the London Symphony.

He had a lifelong interest in young musicians and spent much of his time working with them. He founded the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and made several recordings with them. Late in life, when his health deteriorated, he began to spend the winter months each year in Caracas where he worked often with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. In 2010 he gave a sensational performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony with this orchestra at the Lucerne Festival. It is available on a DVD (Accentus Music ACC20101).

Abbado made fine recordings throughout his career but some of the Mahler performances he conducted with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra between 2003 and 2012 are in a class by themselves. For me, the Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" with the Orfeon Donostiarra is one of the finest I ever heard.

Abbado was a man of few words in rehearsal and in interviews. But the documentary by Paul Smaczny gets as close to Claudio Abbado as we will probably ever get (Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence. Euroarts DVD 2053278)

In tribute to Abbado the Berlin Philharmonic is making available all its videos with him free of charge. To access this collection go to

On Monday, January 27, at 12:00 noon EST, La Scala will pay tribute to Abbado with a live streaming performance conducted by Daniel Barenboim. It can be accessed at

Paul E. Robinson


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Minnesota Orchestra Musicians Reach Settlement with Management

Finally, some good news from Minneapolis. The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have reached a settlement with their management. Concerts will resume in February.

But there is one big unanswered question. When the dispute was at its height music director Osmo Vanska resigned. Will he be asked to return? Will he want to come back?

The Minnesota Orchestra is one of the best symphony orchestras in the country. No doubt about it. But how much should its musicians be paid? That was the main issue in the conflict. On its side management pointed to a deficit that was huge and growing larger. It couldn't see how it could continue operations without cutting musicians' salaries. At one point it demanded a reduction of 30% from the musicians. In the final settlement musicians accepted a 15% cut. But will it be enough to enable the orchestra to function properly?

US orchestras get their revenue from ticket sales - anywhere from 40 to 60% - and the rest of the money comes from private donations. This formula has worked pretty well over the years. Problems develop when the economy is in a slump and businesses and private citizens don't have the money to make their usual donations, and music-lovers don't have the money to spend on tickets.

But these are not the only factors. In many communities musicians have demanded longer seasons and higher pay. Often those demands exceed what the community can afford. A balance must be found between the often legitimate demands of the musicians and what can be raised in ticket sales and donations. Musicians often forget that not every community is the same in terms of the number of ticket buyers and donors available. Managements often forget that musicians are entitled to be paid what they are worth.

Before the strike/lockout in Minneapolis the orchestra and its conductor were in the process of recording all seven Sibelius symphonies. In this video we see them at work on the symphonies 2 and 5.

Paul E. Robinson


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Abbado Conducts Mendelssohn

Claudio Abbado has been in the news lately for his ill health. He has not conducted a concert since last September and his future schedule is very uncertain. In recent years he has drastically cut back his conducting activities due to serious intestinal issues. His main activity has been to lead the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in August every year, give a few concerts and make recordings with Orchestra Mozart, and appear annually with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Now comes word that Orchestra Mozart has suspended operations. Both Orchestra Mozart and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra were created expressly for Abbado and would probably not exist without him. To learn last week that Orchestra Mozart could not carry on is probably another indication that Abbado is not well at all. Abbado is 80 years old.

Abbado's latest recording will be released next month on the Deutsche Grammophon label. It features Martha Argerich playing Mozart Piano Concerti Nos. 20 and 25 with Abbado and Orchestra Mozart.

This video excerpt is taken from a concert given in May of last year by Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. The music is the Wedding March from Mendelssohn's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Paul E. Robinson

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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Pioneers in Canadian Musical Life

We need to pause every once and a while to remember the men and women who contributed so much when Canadian musical life was still in its infancy. Much of the most important work was done by a handful of Germans and Austrians who arrived in Canada against their will during World War II and stayed on to make the country their home.

Eric Koch (1919-) was one of them, and in a remarkable series of videos posted on YouTube he has articulated very well what it was like to be transplanted into a foreign country, and then to make it one's own. Koch worked at the CBC most of his career and he has written many books both fiction and non-fiction. In this video he talks about three of his illustrious colleagues: Helmut Blume (1914-1998), John Newmark (1004-1991) and Franz Kraemer (1914-1999). As a young man I listened to Blume often on CBC Radio, and Newmark I saw and heard as a pianist and especially as an accompanist for Maureen Forrester. Kraemer I knew personally and admired him greatly as a producer of operas and concerts for CBC Television in the 1950s and 1960s. Later, he was artistic director of Toronto Arts Production, and later still he was the music officer of the Canada Council.

All three of these men were enormously influential and musical life in Canada would not have been the same without them. Thanks again to Eric Koch for reminding us of their contribution.

Paul E. Robinson