Tom Service talks to conductor Claudio Abbado

He is seen as the finest conductor in the world - yet he doesn't tell orchestras how to play. Claudio Abbado grants Tom Service a rare interview aboard a private jet

The Italian conductor Claudio Abbado is rehearsing the hundred-plus players of his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Mahler's Third Symphony, in the splendour of Jean Nouvel's concert hall in Lucerne, a performance he repeats at the Proms tonight. There's a moment, right at the end, that embodies the symbiotic alchemy between the conductor and the musicians. Mahler's final chord is a long-held affirmation of love, of song. The Lucerne players give Abbado a magnificent, full-bodied sound, apparently playing at the limits of their ability. But as the double-basses pick out a sonorous note right at the bottom of their instruments, Abbado glances over at them, and suddenly the whole orchestra is supported by a massive upswelling, a sonic foundation on which the rest of the orchestra floats.

For anyone who has ever wondered what conductors actually do up there on the podium, and what possible difference their elusive semaphore makes to a huge group of musicians, here is incontrovertible proof: the orchestra has discovered, through Abbado, a new level of intensity and expression. Later, he tells me that his eyes are the most important tools he uses to communicate with his musicians, and after seeing what a single look can do, it's easy to understand him. It's a conclusion that caps the spiritual progress of this gigantic symphony - the longest in the repertoire, nearly an hour and three-quarters - and the epic trajectory of Abbado's interpretation.

And that was just the rehearsal. Abbado, at 74, is producing the most intense performances of the late-Romantic repertoire of his career, and, with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, the most responsive and revelatory orchestral playing I have ever heard. The two performances of Mahler's Third Symphony in Lucerne over the weekend, seemed, unbelievably, to grow in power minute by minute. "The last one was the best", Abbado says of the shattering performance on Sunday, and I agree. The Proms audience is in for an unforgettable experience tonight. It's hard to imagine, but there are still new depths for Abbado and his orchestra to discover. "I love playing at the Proms," Abbado says, "whether with the London Symphony Orchestra, when I was with them, or with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, or the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic. The acoustic may not be the best, but when the Royal Albert Hall is full, there is a unique atmosphere. It's very special."

But even more special is the story of Abbado's creation and development of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra itself. There is nothing else like it in classical music. The ensemble is the culmination of a lifetime of searching for the right conditions to make orchestral music. Abbado was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000, and when he came back to work after his operation - he has had half his digestive system removed - he set about the Lucerne project with astonishing energy, as well as, among other things, conducting a new production of Wagner's Parsifal in Salzburg in 2002. His physical frailty was shocking at the time, and is still disconcerting. When I meet him at the airport - he is careful to conserve his energy in Lucerne, and it's only when he invites me to share his flight back on a private plane that we can talk - I'm struck by his small stature, so different from how an audience sees him on the podium, and his lined, deeply expressive face. He tells me that "because of my belly, I have to be careful how I travel," and what he eats. But it doesn't stop him munching through an apple pie on the plane. And just as his enthusiasm and intensity on stage are apparently ageless, his charm and humour are boundless. He is a committed environmentalist, talking proudly of the 9,000 trees he has planted around his house in Sardinia. "And now the animals - rabbits, hares, deer, wild boar - have come back, spontaneously." He tells me he drives a hybrid Toyota Prius, but when I point out that travelling by private jet possibly isn't the best way to minimise your carbon footprint, he smiles and says, "Well, there are some things in life you just have to accept!"

The Lucerne project symbolises the strength of Abbado's recovery, and his continued desire to explore new territory. Every summer since 2003, he has brought together the musicians closest to him to create a symphony orchestra with a difference: an ensemble founded on the principles of chamber music. As he says: "It is one of the most important things: all the musicians in the orchestra, they are listening to one another." When you watch Abbado work with them, his approach is the opposite of what you would expect from an all-powerful maestro. Instead of telling the musicians what to do, he shows them how to listen. His left hand - whose graceful, sweeping gestures British conductor Daniel Harding has justifiably described as "the most beautiful" in music - invites them to share the music with each another. It's chamber music on a huge scale: a simple philosophy, but one that would be impossibly ambitious - and expensive - for any other conductor to realise on the scale that it has happened in Lucerne, doubly so without the support of the festival and its artistic director, Michael Haefliger.

It all means that you can't quite believe who you are seeing when you look round at who's playing in the Lucerne orchestra: the cellos, for example, are led by soloist and Rostropovich pupil Natalia Gutman, and Clemens Hagen and Valentin Erben share the second desk, cellists who usually play with two of the world's finest string quartets, the Hagen and Alban Berg. Clarinettist Sabine Meyer and the sublime players of her wind ensemble take the principal slots in the woodwind, and the brass section is a who's who of soloists from international orchestras. This is the Harlem Globetrotters of orchestral music, but unlike most ad-hoc groups of sporting stars, what's astonishing is how this ensemble, who only come together for a few weeks every year, work so completely with and for one another.

The reason for their collective brilliance is the players' individual relationships with Abbado. On one hand, his career is the epitome of the international classical music star: he was in charge of the opera of La Scala in Milan, his home town, for 18 years until 1986, music director of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1979-87, then succeeded Herbert von Karajan as the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989; Abbado did not renew his contract, and left the Berliners in 2002. But along with these high-flying appointments, Abbado has founded a raft of orchestras of young people, such as the European Community Youth Orchestra in 1978, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (some of whose players went on to found the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which in turn forms the core of the Lucerne Orchestra), and, most recently, the Orchestra Mozart. It's these ensembles, he says, that embody his core philosophy of music-making. "The idea started when I was teaching chamber music in Parma, in the early 60s. I didn't have many engagements then, so I needed to do something" - in fact, even at this stage, Abbado had turned down the principal conductorship of an American orchestra, having won the conducting prize at the Tanglewood summer school in Massachusetts in 1958. "Teaching was a great experience. I learned a lot from these young musicians. We played everything - Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat without conductor, Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion - making chamber music with large groups. So when I started the European Community Youth Orchestra, it was a continuation of the same process."

And behind the ideal of chamber music-making is Abbado's notion of listening, a central philosophy of his life for almost as long as he can remember. As a child, he played the piano to accompany his father, a violinist, and learned the true secret of being a musician: that it is more important to be able to listen than to be able to play. "And in life too," he says. "I remember when I was a student, and there were of lot of young people, in my age group, and they came to me to talk, and they told me stories, very strange, very difficult and very personal. But I was listening. And they came to trust me."

Despite his time in charge of orchestras in London, Vienna and Berlin, Abbado says: "I knew that you could get better music in a better way with this way of listening. You know, in America, there are wonderful orchestras everywhere, but I never accepted a position there, because I can't fight with the unions. In Vienna and Berlin it's better because there are many more musicians playing chamber music. But in American orchestras, they have maybe one string quartet, but it's the mentality. The terrible thing is that the players of orchestras like that, they finish the rehearsal not because the music is finished, but because the time is finished. Here in Lucerne, we can continue, shorter, longer, just as we like it. And you know, during the concert, even more than during the rehearsal, it's fantastic to hear not just how they play, but how they follow. It's like - to breathe together."

The mystery is how Abbado creates the collective intensity and concentration that carries through all his rehearsals and performances with the Lucerne orchestra. But he doesn't see it that way. "I don't think there is a mystery," he says, "it's very natural, very spontaneous. We understand each other. And I have worked with these players, like Wolfram Christ [leader of the violas], for many years. You may have noticed in rehearsal, I don't speak very much" - and he doesn't, using only occasional phrases in his Italian-accented German or English - "Listen!" - or having brief conversations with his leader, violinist Kolja Blacher. "It's enough to show them." Ultimately, the success of the Lucerne project comes from Abbado's relationship with the players. Every musician comes, often giving up their summer holidays, because of their respect for him and his way of working. And yet, for all its utopian ideals, Abbado is sanguine about the orchestra's future. "In my life there are always moments when I find limits to things. I set up the European Community Youth Orchestra, and they said the players were limited by the countries of the European Union, so I said, but there are musicians from Austria, from Switzerland, Russia, who want to play with me, so I made an orchestra to play with them, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. And in Lucerne, if I find some limits, I will stop - and I will do something else."

For the moment though, the only limits seem to be Abbado's and the player's imaginations, an endlessly renewable resource. Abbado's creative energy is fuelled not just by music, but by his passions for nature, film and literature; he has just discovered the short stories of the Polish-born American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the Lucerne festival celebrates the creative fruits of his friendship with Andrei Tarkovsky this summer. It's an openness that comes from the person he describes as "the most inspiring person in my life": his grandfather on his mother's side. "He taught ancient languages at the university in Palermo in Sicily. And every five years, he was studying a new culture, and learning a new language. He was studying Aramaic, and he made a translation of the Bible that spoke about the brothers and sisters of Jesus. So he was excommunicated from the church in 1915. He was so open. When he died, he was 96, and to the last days, they used to ask him, 'Please can you tell us, what is the meaning of this hieroglyph?'" Abbado's love of nature also has its roots in his relationship with his grandfather. He remembers as a small child, walking with him near the Matterhorn. "I learned such a lot from him. He used just a few words. I learned to listen to silence." It's a lesson Abbado gives to his musicians, and his audiences too: the silence at the end of Mahler's Third Symphony, as that final chord fades away tonight, will be among the most powerful the Albert Hall has ever heard.

· Claudio Abbado conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra at the Proms tonight, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7. They open Carnegie Hall's season in New York with a series of concerts starting on October 4. The Lucerne Festival runs until September 16. Details:

'Claudio lets you be free'

Musicians recall the joys of working with Abbado

Wolfram Christ
Principal viola, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and principal viola, Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Abbado asked me to be involved with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 1999, saying he was going to invite a group of top soloists, chamber players and orchestral musicians to form a festival orchestra maybe once a year. I wouldn't give up my free time like this for anyone else, only him, and I wasn't sure how he was going to make it work, as orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic work for years to establish their sound. But at the first rehearsal I was overwhelmed. It was special because at the heart of the orchestra are chamber musicians who know how to listen and this is one of Abbado's special qualities, too - he works with an orchestra to make them listen to each other.

He dedicates himself to the music. In a concert, he can really let himself relax and fall into it. He's never a person who tries to show off and look at himself from the outside, asking, 'Do I look good on the podium?' Rather, he's with the music, not interested in being a conductor, but totally with the music - both body and spirit. He has that great gift of inspiration. He is unique.

Robert Bourton
Principal bassoon, London Symphony Orchestra

I was a member of the London Symphony Orchestra when Claudio Abbado was appointed its principal conductor in 1979. It was immediately apparent that he was a conductor who demanded the highest standards, and he achieved this goal with quiet persistence at rehearsals. During one particularly intense period, a player passed a comment to him that the LSO always saved 50% for the concert, which was why the players did not always give of their best at rehearsals. "Ah," said Claudio, "but I need to get you up to the 50% in the first place!"

He is committed to performing music by living composers, notably his Italian colleagues Luigi Nono and Luigi Dallapiccola. But I will always remember his Mahler, the huge Mahler, Vienna and the 20th Century festival in 1985 which heralded a new era for the LSO's concert-giving. It is still one of the highlights of my career.

Diego Matheuz
Co-leader, Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and assistant conductor to Gustavo Dudamel and Claudio Abbado

I have worked with Maestro Abbado on many occasions, both as a player and an assistant, and have performed such great works as Beethoven Nine, Mahler Five, Tchaikovsky Four and Stravinsky's Firebird with Abbado in Venezuela, Spain and Italy. He is one of the best conductors in the world, and for me the most special thing about him as a person is his humility. He is a great figure and an inspirational example to the young people of our orchestra, and yet when he works with us he likes to have fun and seems so normal. He makes a lot of jokes and often makes the orchestra laugh, though he is always serious about the music. As a conductor, he is musical to the extreme and his phrasing is unique.

Richard Hosford
Principal clarinet, BBC Symphony Orchestra

I first started working with him in the European Union Youth Orchestra, or the ECYO back then, which he founded in the early 80s. He is passionate about youth orchestras; he loves working with young people, he loves the energy and enthusiasm. That's why he keeps forming and working with new youth orchestras.

As a wind player, I find the really special thing about him is that he lets you play. If you're doing something that he likes, even if he didn't think of it, he will go with you. And if you've got the solo line, he'll make the orchestra follow you. He encourages you in your ideas rather than dogmatically telling you what he wants.

Some of the most amazing concerts I've done have been with him. He's an inspirational performer, and inspiration is something that he has in abundance. I still remember a Brahms serenade concert that we did in Budapest, back before the wall came down. I remember the audience being overwhelmed, but then so were we.

Julia Neher
Viola player, Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

There's something special about the atmosphere he creates in concerts. It's something I've never experienced with other conductors; I don't know how he does it. In rehearsals he's exciting, but when the concert starts, it's magic.

He lets you be free as a musician, yet somehow he makes us also play together as an orchestra. We're a big orchestra, but it's as if we're playing as chamber musicians.

I first worked with him three years ago in the Mahler Youth Orchestra. I was 21, and I was pretty intimidated by the idea of working with him - and also very excited. But I found he was a really nice guy - friendly, funny and very human.

· Interviews by ChaiHong Lim


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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