Symphony Conductor. Born in Milan, Italy, he received his first piano lessons from his mother at age eight. His father was a violinist and teacher at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory where he later studied piano, conducting and composition. After graduating in 1955, he spent summers studying at Siena's Chigiana Academy and there met conductor Zubin Mehta who talked him into studying with Hungarian conductor Hans Swarowsky in Vienna, Austria. He had already seen the famed conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini in Milan and, while members of the Vienna Singverein (Choral Society), he and Mehta had the chance to observe conductor Herbert von Karajan at work. He later surprised himself by winning the conducting competition at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony's summer home and school, in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. After his lackluster operatic conducting debut in Trieste and another conducting opportunity in Milan celebrating composer Alessandro Scarlatti's 300th birthday, he became a teacher at the Parma Conservatory to better support his wife and two young children. American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein invited him to conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1963 but he finally achieved the international recognition he was seeking after conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 2 "The Resurrection" with the Vienna Philharmonic at Salzburg at the invitation of Karajan. He became principal conductor at La Scala in Milan in 1968. In 1972 he was appointed music director there and, in 1976, became artistic director. He made many changes at La Scala such as encouraging the orchestra to consider non-Italian musicians and to play more orchestral repertoire and form chamber ensembles to help improve their income and their musicianship. While at La Scala, he made some highly-acclaimed recordings with Deutsche Grammophon, the finest of which is considered to be Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra", recorded in 1977. Soon in demand all over Europe, he made his conducting debut at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London, England and, in 1968, made his debut with several very successful concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The latter even named him their principal guest conductor from 1982 to 1985. He made many successful recordings with the CSO, the most exceptional including several Gustav Mahler Symphonies, the first two Bela Bartok Piano Concertos with his friend, pianist Maurizio Pollini, the complete Piotr Tchaikovsky Symphonies and Sergei Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky", "Lieutenant Kijé" and Scythian Suite. His relationship with the CSO was so successful that he was one of only three candidates put forward by Sir Georg Solti to succeed Solti when he retired in 1991. (The other two were Daniel Barenboim and Bernard Haitink with the post eventually going to Barenboim.) During his years at La Scala, infighting forced him to resign several times in the 1970s and, citing ill health, he gave up his post as music director of the Vienna State Opera after only two years due to politics behind the scenes. In spite of this, his new productions and performances there of Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" and Modest Mussorgsky's "Khovanschina" were acclaimed and recorded. Since his debut with them at Salzburg, Austria in 1965, he and the Vienna Philharmonic - the pit orchestra at the Vienna State Opera - had built a relationship leading to over 500 performances with them. In Vienna, he recorded a complete cycle of the Beethoven Symphonies and Piano Concertos, the latter with Maurizio Pollini, and was also invited to conduct two of the famous New Year's Day Concerts in Vienna in 1988 and 1991. He also conducted the orchestra
in 138 concerts while on tour. In 1979 he was appointed principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra with which he gave memorable concerts, some with pianists Martha Argerich and Pollini, and a concert series titled "Mahler, Vienna and the Twentieth Century." After Karajan's resignation and death in 1989, the Berlin Philharmonic unanimously chose him as their fifth music director. The appointment posed a huge challenge not only in trying to fill the great maestro's shoes but also because many in the orchestra were nearing retirement. It was further complicated by the fact that the orchestra had recently fought with Karajan over artistic differences and other such politics. He pushed the orchestra's repertoire beyond the core romantic works that they did under their previous music directors and sought to bring together young musicians with established professionals. When he resigned in 2002, only a small number of the musicians that had served under Karajan were left and the orchestra's pride and spirit were riding as high as ever. One of the reasons prompting his resignation from the Berlin post was that he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000. He underwent radical surgery removing a large part of his digestive system. After recovering, he felt renewed and founded his ideal orchestra in the form of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra made up of his hand-picked musicians from orchestras all over the world, some even from youth orchestras. He was soon speaking and writing about how music had given him a new will to live and work. His interest in young musicians led to concerts with Gustavo Dudamel's Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the European Community Youth Orchestra of which he became music director in 1977 and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra which he himself founded in 1986. To honor him, Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano appointed him senator for life and
Milan began planting the 90,000 magnolias that he suggested in 2008 to beautify the city. He received many honors for his art and humanity from governments and institutions around the world. Fortunately, there is a large number of recordings made for Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and Sony beginning in the 1960s and many complete concert films of
the Lucerne Festival Orchestra's performances. He earned 21 Grammy nominations throughout his career and won two, the first for Best Small Ensemble Performance (With or Without Conductor) for Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1 with Finale 1921, Op. 24 No. 1, in 1997 and the second for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (with Orchestra) for Beethoven's Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 with soloist Martha Argerich in 2005. He was nominated but did not win a third posthumously at the 56th Grammy Awards for Best Orchestral Performance for the Orchestra Mozart's performance of Schumann's Symphony No. 2 coupled with overtures to both "Manfred" and "Genoveva". The last two concerts he conducted were in August 2013 in Lucerne with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The first concert was comprised of Brahms' Tragic Overture, an orchestral interlude and the Song of the Wood Dove from Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder, and Beethoven's Third Symphony "Eroica" and is now available on DVD and blu-ray. The second, and final, concert was comprised of Schubert's Eight Symphony "Unfinished" and Bruckner's valedictory Ninth Symphony, also unfinished. A Deutsche Grammophon CD of the latter work is now available.
Bio by: Geoffrey D. Decker