Cultural Revolution

Late Italian conductor's link to the Cultural Revolution

Claudio Abbado, who died this week, put on a landmark performance in Beijing in 1973

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 January, 2014, 4:40am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 May, 2016, 3:40pm

Of all the accolades showered on the late Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, the obituaries skipped over an important story in the history of classical music.

Few recalled that Abbado, who died on Monday at age 80, was in Beijing during the tumultuous days of the Cultural Revolution. Even fewer would note that he was on stage conducting The Yellow River Piano Concerto, then a "model" work endorsed by Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing.

In April 1973, two months before he turned 40, Abbado landed in Beijing with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to perform several concerts in the capital. The Cultural Revolution would not conclude for another three years, and Western classical music had been labelled decadent.

An exception was made for the Austrian group as the tour was a part of a cultural exchange following the establishing of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1971.

They played beloved works by Mozart, Brahms, Schubert and Beethoven. Instead of attacking the music as "bourgeois", Xinhua lauded the performances as "exquisite and harmonious".

But the piece that caught the attention of the media was The Yellow River Piano Concerto composed in 1970.

"He got the full music score in the morning and conducted by memory at the concert in the evening. How amazing!" Yin Chengzong, a pianist and one of the concerto's composers, said.

The orchestra was able to grasp the piece after just a single rehearsal, said Yin, who is now based in New York.

Han Zhongjie, a conductor who had performed the concerto during a tour of the Balkans in 1970, admitted that in the hands of Abbado and the Viennese musicians, the work sounded "far more sumptuous" than when his musicians played it.

Xinhua praised Abbado for "expressing the friendship between Chinese and Austrian musicians" through the concerto.

It quoted him as saying: "I am very delighted to be performing with Chinese friends."

The People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, praised Abbado for "his sober work attitude in rehearsing the concerto during which he always sincerely and modestly exchanged views with Chinese pianist Yin Chengzong, and reflected on them repeatedly".

What Abbado did not know at the time was that on the day of the performance, April 12, Deng Xiaoping , then a vice-premier, made his first public appearance since being sidelined during the Cultural Revolution.

Abbado returned to China in 2009, in the wake of the Beijing Olympics, for what would be his final visit to Beijing. At age 76 and suffering from stomach cancer, he performed at the new National Centre for the Performing Arts. The performance was shown on a large screen outside of the futuristic egg-shaped venue, a new experience in the Tiananmen Square area.

Media reports later noted that Abbado had taken the subway before the performance to avoid traffic jams.

"From Guomao Station to Tiananmen West, Abbado stood in the middle of the crowd," the Beijing Evening Post reported. "Regrettably, no one recognised who he was and no one would give their seat to this elderly man. But he seemed to be enjoying himself," the paper added.