I did not know Claudio Abbado personally but the few experiences I have had with him are eternally meaningful. One of the regrets I have had about having to change Fach (a starting over, so to speak) is that I wondered wether I would finish my re-training in time to get to work with this man as a soloist one day. It is not meant to be and I let it go. But why was that so important?
I first met Maestro Abbado when he visited the campus of Westminster Choir College during my undergraduate junior year, 1987, to rehearse with the Westminster Choir in preparation of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. We had performed the work two weeks before at Carnegie Hall with another great conductor and orchestra that we loved very dearly. But on many fronts, Abbado was about to bring us to another level. His rehearsal with us was short, and to the point. He had a mini-score which he almost never used and he said almost nothing. We rehearsed and when he wanted something different he stopped and conducted slightly differently. After a mere 20 minutes, we were done.
At our first rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic, we were transported by the first notes they played. It was as if we had been watching “black-and-white” for years and suddenly were introduced to Technicolor. The Vienna Philharmonic tuned nearly a half-tone higher at 454 we were told and yet the basses having to deal with Beethoven’s hyped up high Gs never complained. And the E/G minor third for the sopranos and altos on “über’m Sternenzelt…” got only raptured transcendence from the ladies instead of the usual complaints.
A couple of years later, I was deeply in my study of orchestral conducting under the legendary Gustav Meier. How a young singer got this honorable opportunity is a story for another time. Maestro Abbado visited Ann Arbor, Michigan to perform among other things, Strauss’ Four Last Songs with Jessye Norman. Needless to say, tickets were sold out practically before they were printed. After a conducting seminar, Maestro Meier signaled to me and when I approached, he suggested I cut my next class to join him in an adventure. We went to Hill Auditorium and sneaked into the dress rehearsal of that performance. We entered quietly, but maestro Abbado noticed us. Soon he stopped the orchestra, came down to the house level and embraced Gustav Meier. There was something profound between the two giants and I stood there by my teacher wondering what would happen next. And when Maestro Abbado asked who I was, to my unforgettable surprise, Maestro Meier said: “ …he is one of your nephews!”
More than a decade later I was in Rome visiting a German friend and colleague who had chosen the Italian capital as her home, I was introduced to a little book, which was an extended interview with Maestro Abbado during his years as Music Director of both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. The name of my teacher, Gustav Meier appeared several times. Although I knew that five especially famous conductors studied at Tanglewood together under Leonard Bernstein and that they are very special people, reading that book made me feel part of a special tradition.
That this does not appear in any way self-serving, I am not a conductor. And yet I am. During my years at the University of Michigan, I must have spent at least half of my time preparing for conducting classes with Gustav Meier. Why am I not a conductor? Simply, because I do not spend every day in front of an orchestra or preparing music for an orchestra. Real conductors conduct and it is a very special covenant that not so many get to experience. I spend most of my time singing these days. That was the choice I made even though Maestro Meier told me once I would never be totally satisfied being a singer. This great man thought I would be more completely fulfilled as a conductor. In some respects I remained active, conducting musicals in the universities where I taught and occasionally appearing as conductor in some capacity, lastly, with the Clifford Brown Jazz Orchestra in a performance of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. To be really great at something, one needs to dedicate much time to it. Perhaps when I am satisfied that I have contributed properly to the art of Operatic Singing, I will recommit myself to the art of conducting an orchestra. Time will tell.
What my “conductor’s apprenticeship” meant has everything to do with music and a certain philosophy of music which I hold dear and has Gustav Meier and a few others written all over it. Serious musicians are willing to die for what the art form means to us. And to be willing to put your life, reputation and entire being on the line for something means that you value it. And to value it, you must know it intimately. And to know it intimately you must have spent more hours than most people would give to mastering it.
As a choral singer, I experienced Riccardo Muti on one side who was almost fanatical about the sacred nature of the written note. I have come to understand why. Too many conductors use the score to express their personal point of view. Muti, a very early important influence, during my Westminster Choir days, understood that the answers were to be found in the scores and studying the score to reveal the composer’s truth as much as we can understand it was the job of the musical interpreter. Indeed, I have experienced enough conductors who in their ego, think that the music is their vehicle to look interesting and they will use it as it serves them.
Abbado, Bernstein, Meier, Flummerfelt and Glenn Parker, the most influential musicians on my development had one thing in common: they were able to find a place where every note was sacred and yet allowed for the expression of the human condition in a way that placed the interpreter as solely responsible at the time the music is being made. In the end any applause is a celebration of a transcendental experience whereby the audience becomes enlightened viscerally and no words of explanation need be spoken. Whether the Beethoven 9th with Abbado, the Mahler 2nd with Bernstein, or Brahms Zigeuner Lieder with Flummerfelt and Parker, or Brahms Magelone Lieder with Parker and the many operas I sang with Meier, it is all the same. The audience rejoices when the performer makes himself invisible, such that the music and its inspired creator are celebrated.
My thoughts are with Gustav Meier today, who was close to Abbado and who remains a symbol of everything musical for me. I could not reach him by phone today and I am sad. The passing of Maestro Abbado might signify the beginning of the end of a school of conductors who shared a noble vision. Abbado, Meier, Mehta, Ozawa and Slatkin shared a close kinship under the tutelage of Bernstein. But perhaps more than singers, conductors at that level aspire to go further than their predecessors and seek to leave a proper legacy. A quick exchange with Maestro Simon Rattle a few years ago revealed to me the significance of these men. At the mention of Gustav Meier I had gotten his attention. More than the art of singing, I see a coming generation of conductors that give me hope for the future of music and the significance of art in the context of an ever superficial socio-artistic culture. They too are aware of the significance of being a conductor, a musician, an artist. We have a responsibility to embody the noble significance of artistic meditation and how it becomes action in our society; not for furthering our own egos but rather to disappear such that an entire audience may be spellbound. Whether to disappear into the tortured texture of a Mahler Symphony or into the persona of a tragic operatic character or the meaning of Schubert’s An die Leier, great interpreters disappear such that the music may live. And Maestro Claudio Abbado was among the greatest master-interpreters ever. His example is one to be emulated!
He once said he would protest everything that was against freedom. Perhaps it is significant that we celebrate the life of Claudio Abbado on the day that we remember the contributions of Martin Luther King!