Archive for June, 2011

Claudio Abbado: leading orchestras in harmony with the Tao

June 20, 2011

In the high-powered world of professional symphony orchestra conductors, outsize egos and domineering leadership styles have been the stereotypical characteristics of many conductors, at least, perhaps, until quite recently.  One who helped to break this mold is Claudio Abbado, one of the great conductors of our generation, the former conductor of the La Scala Opera House, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the founder and current conductor of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.  He also is a leading interpreter of the music of Gustav Mahler (see my earlier post Gustav Mahler—a Taoist?).  Despite his lofty career accomplishments, Abbado has a soft-spoken, gentle, and warm-hearted manner.  His conducting has been motivated not by a desire for power or fame, but by a deep love of music and a commitment to encouraging orchestra members to listen to each other and work together to create great music.

In the DVD Claudio Abbado:  Hearing the Silence, members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra note that, instead of being autocratic (a discrete reference to Abbado’s predecessor, Herbert van Karajan, and other earlier conductors of the orchestra), Abbado was more democratic, and changed the culture of the orchestra to one that emphasized music-making as a joint enterprise, and emphasized mutual respect, and above all, listening to one another (see previous post listening).  This emphasis on mutual respect and listening tends to defuse the competitiveness that can be rampant in the world of classical music, and brings the musicians closer together, making it more enjoyable to work together, and allowing the musicians to reach new heights together (see previous post following).  This passage recently appeared on the website of the Berlin Philharmonic:

“‘I am Claudio to everyone.’  With these words, Claudio Abbado introduced himself in 1989 to the Berliner Philharmoniker, who had just elected him as their chief conductor.  With this invitation to use his first name, Abbado made it immediately clear that his working methods were different [from] those of his more aloof predecessor, Herbert von Karajan.  The Abbado era was indeed a departure from both a personal and an artistic perspective.”

An article by Daniel J. Wakin entitled “Not Just Another Pickup Band,” in the September 30, 2007 New York Times focused on the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which Abbado founded, and Abbado’s leadership style:

“Here, ‘every day has an optimistic beginning,’ [a player] said. ‘You can guarantee that it will be a good day. Nobody is against another colleague.’…What comes through in conversations with dozens of orchestra players, staff members and other musicians is the degree to which Mr. Abbado’s presence brings them together…”

Abbado has been committed to fostering the careers of young musicians, and founded and conducted the European Union Youth Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra.  Members of Mahler Youth Orchestra also knew him as “Claudio,” not the more formal Maestro.  He is unpretentious, un-authoritarian, and has no interest in intimidating (see previous post child and parent, student and teacher ).  In an customer review of the DVD Claudio Abbado:  A Portrait, the reviewer refers to Abbado’s goal of conducting without forcing, without dominating:

“This set of four videos presents a wonderful insight into the spirit of one of the greatest conductors of all time. He has lived up to his goal, stated early in his career, of discovering a way to conduct an orchestra ‘without all that bullying.’ With the greatest of respect for musicians (especially young ones), Abbado leads elegant performances with monumental knowledge, vision, and love.”


“The Tao nourishes by not forcing.  By not dominating, the Master leads.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 81, Stephen Mitchell translation

The genuine connection between Abbado and the orchestra members is visible, and when the orchestra plays well, Abbado has a smile that is so warm, so genuine, so filled with joy in the music and pride in the orchestra, that it’s the kind of smile that anyone would wish from their parent.

As the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, starting in 1989, Abbado was at the very pinnacle of the position that any conductor could have, the most “powerful” position in orchestra conducting in the world.  This was an appointment for life.  However, in 2002, in his 60’s, still a relatively young age for conductors, Abbado decided to voluntarily resign his position.  This came as a shock to the orchestra and the music world, because no previous conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra had voluntarily resigned.  People don’t tend to give up their position at the top of the heap voluntarily.  In retrospect, it became apparent that this decision was due to health concerns.  But many others, in this same situation, would have clung to this highest of positions at all costs.   Abbado’s decision to retire engendered a feeling of respect and admiration among the orchestra.  As one orchestra member said in Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence, his decision impressed upon them his qualities as an independent spirit.  After leaving the Berlin Philharmonic, he founded the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which performs during summers and whose players are “friends” of Abbado’s from the Berlin Philharmonic and other great ensembles.  I have no idea if Abbado has any feelings of kinship with Taoism.  But it seems to me that his work, life, and leadership style illustrate the value of principles that resonate with Taosim–that it is possible to achieve without forcing, to lead without dominating, and, even in an elite, competitive field, to foster a culture in which listening to others carefully and working together are among the highest values.

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