By Michael Tilson Thomas
January 23, 2014

Maestros can be about different things. Claudio Abbado was about making music with enormous heart and a commitment to excellence. He worked with tremendous energy and focus. As the conductor of Milan’s La Scala, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, he produced work that was sophisticated, elegant and beautifully conceived and did so with singular compassion.

I met Abbado nearly 50 years ago at a Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsal. The orchestra knew only that he was a young, brilliant guest conductor from Italy. He came on, said a few words and then gave the upbeat to Prokofiev’s Third Symphony. The effect was shattering, electrifying. I had never seen so much energy concentrated in a single upward motion. It launched what would be a gripping performance and forged a powerful relationship between him and all of us. That’s what he could do in a single beat. Unforgettable.

The art of music is about the balance of emotions and intellect. Abbado, who was 80 when he died on Jan. 20, achieved that balance perfectly. A conductor is somewhere between a director and a coach, sometimes drawing people together to make a unified conception of the music, then at other times empowering them to go way out on their own to be leaders and soloists.

Being a conductor means being able to see the design of the piece in the score and make that design come to life. Abbado had it all. His devotion to every detail of the music was his way of honoring the great tradition of which he has become a historic part.

Tilson Thomas is music director of the San Francisco Symphony and founder of the New World Symphony

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This appears in the February 03, 2014 issue of TIME.

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