Claudio Abbado - Parsifal
Edinburgh Festival - Proms

This summer has been one of the happiest of my entire life because I am spending much of my time at the Proms.  It’s funny how completed addicted I have become.  To see Claudio Abbado conduct was one of the most emotional and privileged experiences I have had throughout this amazing summer.  “The Man in Red” was there in burgundy.  I was sitting between “Mr. Stone Cold” and a delightful couple who live at the Barbican.  I mentioned to “Mr. Stone Cold” that I was intrigued by the way “The Man in Red” dresses.  “Stone Cold” said, “he doesn’t always wear red, but all sorts of blue too!”  My Malaysian friend calls him “The Man of One Colour”.  Very often I sit next to the Barbican couple; she is a GP (Doctor).  Today she invited me to her house for the afternoon, which was incredibly nice and extremely sweet; this is the first invitation I have received from an English person since the first time I came to London in the 60’s.  She invited me because of our connection through the love of music.  The invitation really touched me, but I could not go because I was meeting my cousin Vera for the afternoon in Kensington Gardens.   

Claudio Abbado’s concert was mesmerising!  The concert was taken on tour by Abbado with Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester that he founded in Vienna in 1986.  All the musicians were in their early 20’s coming from 27 nationalities across Europe, with guest musicians from Cuba and Venezuela.  The extraordinary programme included Bella Bartok’s (1875-1937) Piano Concerto in G Major (1929-31) with soloist Martha Argerich on piano.  She played with incredible technical brilliance, as she always does.  Argerich was loved by most of the people at Proms, but she did not warm “Mr Stone Cold”.  (I call him Mr Stone Cold because if you ask him a question he will always say ‘stone cold’.)  In the programme there was an amazing photograph of Ravel on his 53rd birthday playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for its composer.  The programme also included Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) La Mer (three symphonic sketches – 1902-5).  I really love La Mer by Charles Trenet, who to my despair died last year.  

They played two encores, one of which was the Good Friday Music from Wagner’s Parsifal.  An extraordinary concert, perhaps the most poignant of this year’s Prom’s Festival.  Parsifal, a sacred music drama in three Acts, was the last opera composed by Richard Wagner (born in Leipzig 22.5.1813, died in Venice 13.2.1883).  The text was also written by Wagner based on the legends of the Holy Grail.  Parsifal’s first performance was on 26 July 1882 in Bayreuth.  I read in my opera book:

“Parsifal was a subject long in Wagner’s mind: it appears in Lohengrin (who is Parsifal’s son) and he saw at one time the ‘sin’ of Tannhauser passing through Tristan to rest in Amfortas. When he finally came to write Parsifal, Wagner was old and exhausted.  Despite the opera’s musical subtleties and the stamp genius on its best pages, some saw signs that Wagner was worn out and defeated.  Wagner called Parsifal a Sacred Festival Play, and he wanted it played only in Bayreuth; a wish his widow Cosima obstinately tried to carry out.  But inevitably the opera went out into the world.  It is perhaps the most controversial of Wagner’s mature works; there is a religious atmosphere about which frequently offends, but for many it represents Wagner at his most subtle and profound.” 

Abbado received cheers from the audience and applause for more than 15 minutes.  The trumpet and gigantic bells and this young orchestra that Abbado has toured with since leaving the Berliner Philharmonic fascinated me.  The goodbye from the Berliner Philharmonic was on 26 April 2002; Abbado was given the highest award from the Germans, rather like the Nobel Prize for music.  The Berlin audience gave him a standing ovation of 20 minutes, stamped their feet and threw flowers at his feet.  On 1 May the concert was televised throughout the world.  He then went on tour with the Berliner Philharmonic in Italy; they played in Palermo, Napoli, Firenze, Ferrara, Brescia and Torino. Then the tour moved to Edinburgh and London; the tour will end in Bolzano on 29 August.  (Before finishing the tour Abbado conducted Parsifal in Lucerna).  Abbado said of Parsifal, “Parsifal is very much for the present time: it is necessary to overcome to religious and cultural in the name if universal understanding.” 

Abbado first conducted Parsifal last year with the Berliner Philharmonic on 29 November 2001.  It was taken to Saltzburg Easter Festival under the direction of Peter Stein with the smell of incense and real bells made of aluminium and based on the design of those used in the Tibetan temples, produced by a foundry in Heilbronn.  It was a concert performance with chorus of the Rundfunkchor Berlin and Tolzer Knabenchor.  Abbado received standing ovations in Berlin and Strasbourg.  The Saltzburg Festival, popular with the jet-setting European super-rich, was founded by Herbert von Karajan as an Easter Festival and as a means of raising money for his Berlin orchestra; he charged the highest prices for classical music in Europe.  

Two years ago, Abbado presented Tristan and Isolde for the cycle Liebe und Tod (Love and Death), themes also present in Parsifal.  His collaborations with the Berliner had lasted 12 years until May 2002 ending with the aforementioned tour.  Parsifal was Abbado’s final performance as the conductor of the Berliner Philharmonics.  Simon Rattle, who for his first performance will be conducting Fidelio, will take his place. (Last year Abbado conducted Beethoven and toured with the Berliner Philharmonic.  He conducted all Beethoven symphonies.  Is favourite is the Six Symphony – The Pastoral.  There were six concerts at the Auditorium of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia over eight days – all symphonies and piano concertos, with soloists Brendel, Argerich, Kissin, Pollini, and Gianluca Cascioli.)

Back to the Proms…..I simply have to talk about the most elegant and best-dressed man there.  He had beautiful clothes and, darlings, the original Panama hat that he folds and puts in his pocket.  And, of course, he has been to Bayreuth this year.  So, I asked him, “How was it?”  And he said three times, “Glorious, glorious, glorious.”  Each time that I asked him about Bayreuth I got the same answer.  He told me what surprised him the most was how perfect the sound and acoustics were and that the stage and auditorium was completely in darkness giving you a very mystical experience.  I asked him how he got a ticket.  He said, “A friend of a friend.”   I said, “Bayreuth is not an Italian Theatre, Darling!”   Then I asked, “What did you see there?”  “Die Meistersinger”, he replied.  Darlings, believe it or not I am rubbing my shoulders with Bayreuth people!!! 

I saw a TV program a few weeks ago with Michael Portillo, the Conservative MP (who was once a Minister).  The program was about his passion for opera and a large part of it was dedicated to Bayreuth.  He asked the PR of Bayreuth why he was able to get tickets when he was a Minister but can not get them anymore.  Most unbelievable!  When in Bayreuth Stranvinsky described the place as, “Art as religion and the theatre as a temple.”  To my Brazilian friends I can tell them that D. Pedro went to the opening of Bayreuth and signed the hotel book stating his procession as “Emperor”. 

Bayreuth was the first of all European festivals of opera.  The foundation stone was laid in 1872 and Wagner conducted Beethoven’s 9th on 13 August 1876 at the first festival.  The first Ring Cycle was launched in the admirable wood and brick theatre, with it’s superb acoustics and covered orchestra pit.  Among the audience were kings and great composers.  Cosima Wagner ran the festival from 1883 to 1908, keeping more rigidly to the master’s blueprint than Wagner himself.  I like the story of Cosima, daughter of Liszt and wife of the pianist and composer Hans von Bulow.  Wagner formed a triangle in Cosima’s marriage and finally after she had Wagner’s 1st daughter in 1870 she obtained a divorce from Hans von Bulow and married Wagner. 

It was thanks to King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-56) that Wagner got his theatre.  King Ludwig had his bedroom and walls of his castle decorated with images of Wagner’s opera.  The King devoted his life and the State’s coffers to Wagner.  I should have asked the best-dressed man at the Proms is he visited the garden of the villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth where Wagner was buried.   

Claudio Abbado is one of the “top tier” of today’s conductors.  He is comfortable with opera as well as the concert podium, with contemporary music that goes from classical to Romantic periods.  He was born in Milan on 26 June 1933.  I remember I was in Italy during the “Abbado era” at La Scala 1968 to 1986 when he was Music Director and Manager.  He was often in despair trying to find money to upkeep the opera house and stage the operatic productions.  During this time he founded the Orchestra della Scala, which was purely for concerts.  They started playing only Italian music then diversified into other music. (Abbado conducted in June 2002 Simon Boccanera, a production from La Scala of 1971 that he did with Giorgio Strehler and the Maggio Fiorentino in Florence.  Abbado has chosen for this year’s theme to be connected with destiny, death and a sense of frustration – it was all a triumph for him this year.)

He was also at the Vienna State Opera from 1986-1991.  In 1987 he was named General Music Director of the City of Vienna.  He established the Wien Modern Music Festival in 1988.  He also founded the Berliner Begegnungen (Berlin Encounters) with Natalia Gutman in 1992.  He founded the European Community Youth Orchestra in 1978 and in 1986 the GMJO and is an Artistic Advisor to the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.  But the highlight of his career was the first time he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1966 and became their Principal Conductor and their fifth Artistic Advisor in 1986.  Abbado graduated from the Vienna Music Academy in 1958.  Zubin Mehta was at the same Academy during that time and their careers and friendship have been very close.  They were considered outstanding in Viennese music circles.  Abbado preferred to remain in Europe despite an invitation from an American orchestra.  He has learned a great number of scores by heart and can conduct virtually everything in his vast repertoire from memory.  He has a prodigious memory.  Abbado said, “I’m sure that there is music going on in my mind all the time.  Even music I haven’t conducted for years must be playing somewhere in the back of my head.  Take Wozzeck for example.  When I first studied it in 1971, I took months and months learning it, and it was really difficult to memorise.  I conducted it gain in 1977, and in May-June 1979, when I though ‘Oh, God, this is terrible, I can’t remember a single note!’  But after two or three days it came back to me and this is something mysterious, something I don’t understand.  I have no photographic memory, I don’t know how everything comes back.  Dimitri Mitropoulos, whose ‘live’ recording of Wozzeck is fantastic, by the way, could glance at a score and memorise it almost on sight.  I can’t.  And I don’t really know how it happens.”   

Abbado has suffered 3 ulcers in the past and 18 months ago underwent an operation for stomach cancer.  Riccardo Muti has written in the Corriere della Sera an open letter inviting Abbado to return to conduct at La Scala whenever he felt that he was well enough to. 

I must say that I was completely surprised to see Abbado conducting at the Edinburgh Festival.  I could see his backbone through his suite; he looked so fragile.  His face was gaunt and I found it sad to see such obvious pain in and throughout his frail body.  But I noticed he still has the same passion for music and he entered with a huge smile on his face.  Being back at the orchestra is probably a tonic itself.  At the end of this tour he will be taking a year of to tend to his health and spend more time with his children and grandchildren.  When he’s back in a year’s time he will return with a new orchestra – the Orchestra of the Festival of Lucerna, that he has created from the best soloists of the Berliner.  (In German law, musician cannot be in an orchestra and also teach, but in Lucerna they can.)  The Orchestra will also comprise musicians from the Mahler Chamber and Sabine Mayer and her ensemble and the Quaretto.  Every year Abbado will dedicate part of the Festival Programme to Wagner because it was at the Villa Triebschen on the lake Lucerna, Wagner used to spend much of his time.   

The Orchestra of Lucerna was originally created before the war for Toscanini.   The Maestro Claudio Abbado, a legend in conducting, I can only say, “Grazie, Maestro Abbado for all the9 pleasures I have got from your beautiful music!”  Michael David said of Abbado, “…(Abbado) is outside the music, as if he is standing back and listening.  But his concerts are a different story altogether.  He generates tremendous intensity, electricity and emotion, and you can see that he feels the music very, very, deeply, that he is giving it absolutely everything he’s got, and that he is inside it, a hundred percent involved.”  I have made Michael David’s words my own to describe to you the pleasure I experienced during Abbado’s concerts this summer in the U.K.   

I will leave you with the words of Abbado; “I can never put into words what music is to me.  But everything I do, everything I say, is about it.”

Ciao Maestro Abbado! 

Verinha Ottoni


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