Claudio Abbado first conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in January 1971, leading three weeks of subscription concerts. For the next twenty years, he was a frequent visitor—both before and after his tenure as second principal guest conductor from 1982 until 1985—also leading the Orchestra in concerts at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. Abbado’s numerous residencies included collaborations with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, recording sessions, and performances with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.
On May 24, 25, and 27, 1984, Abbado led the Orchestra’s first performances of Berg’s landmark opera, Wozzeck. The principal cast included Benjamin Luxon in the title role, Hildegard Behrens as Marie, Alexander Malta as the Doctor, Jacque Trussel as the Drum Major, and Gerhard Unger as the Captain. Members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus were prepared by associate director James Winfield, members of the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus were prepared by Doreen Rao, and the concert staging was directed by Robert Goldschlager.
“Sung by an extraordinary cast and played with surpassing beauty and intensity by the Orchestra, this first CSO performance of the Berg masterpiece served as a resoundingly successful climax to the season,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “In a wondrous score that shifts between Straussian contrapuntal complexity and a translucence of texture worthy of Debussy, Abbado was masterful. His limning of detail was extraordinary, and he never stressed the agonized lyricism at the expense of passion or intensity. Given orchestral playing of power, shimmer, and clarity, Berg’s tight formal structures supported a vocal performance of shattering dramatic impact.”
“Claudio Abbado, who conducted without a score (an achievement appreciated by all who have studied this music) took advantage of the simple setting to permit the work to develop with symphonic continuity, one scene flowing directly into another, and the cumulative effect was tremendous,” raved Robert C. Marsh in the Chicago Sun-Times. “There are occasions when despite our rich diet of superlative music, you say to yourself, ‘This is a historic moment. People will be talking about this for years to come.’ And they will. Abbado and the CSO, in all their years of association, have never done anything finer or more important.”
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