The pupils of Claudio Abbado

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra performs at the Philharmonie

(Photo: Molina Visuals)

What do you do when you have just completed your music studies and you are now too old for the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, but, as a budding professional musician, you do not want to miss out on the inspiring musicianship that you have come to know in the orchestra? Quite simple: you found your own orchestra and ask the conductor of the youth orchestra, Claudio Abbado, to continue to work with the ensemble. “The musicians wanted to preserve and continue their experiences with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester for themselves. They wanted to work in an environment where there are no time restrictions when the artistic process requires it. This attitude has been maintained by the musicians to this day,” recalls Andrea Zietzschmann. Today’s general manager of the Berliner Philharmoniker was part of that group of enthusiastic young people who joined forces to form the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in 1997. Both the young instrumentalists and Andrea Zietzschmann, who was responsible for the organisational side of things, started with a lot of idealism, especially as Claudio Abbado had promised his support. He encouraged the young ensemble to follow its own path. “Our goal was very clear: we wanted to be one of the best chamber orchestras, perform a broad repertoire and work together with the best conductors. Thanks to Claudio Abbado, things became easier for us; he opened doors, and arranged great guest conductors.”

A global player

One of the first to conductor the orchestra thanks to Abbado’s help was Daniel Harding, who soon rose from principal guest conductor to music director. Together with him, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra realised one of its most important projects in the early years: Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The ensemble’s aim to become one of the best chamber orchestras has long been achieved, and moreover, it has established itself as a global player with appearances all over the world. It has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg and the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, and is a partner orchestra of the Heidelberger Frühling, the Festival de Saint-Denis and Mozart Week in Salzburg. Since 2003, it has participated in the annual Lucerne Festival and forms the core of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The recipe for success: “Its musicians,” says managing director Michael Adick, “they have artistic flexibility without any sense of anything being routine, and are animated by the desire to constantly broaden their own horizons. On top of all that comes the absolute will to produce the highest quality. There is a constant dialogue, both with artistic partners and the public.” Another plus is the democratically organised structure of the collective.

Inquisitive and open

Even though the orchestra has developed structurally and artistically over the past 20 years, Claudio Abbado’s legacy is still evident: the Mahler Chamber Orchestra cultivates the transparent, chamber-music style of music favoured by its mentor, even in the symphonic repertoire, and with openness and inquisitiveness, the musicians focus on the moment, and allow the music emerge from this. While the MCO initially cultivated the Classic-Romantic repertoire, Contemporary music has been added over time.

One of the most important projects in this regard was the world premiere of the opera Written on Skin at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence in 2012, written by George Benjamin especially for the ensemble and now to be performed by the MCO at the Philharmonie. Michael Adick describes this collaboration between the orchestra and the composer as a particular stroke of good fortune: “George Benjamin has a keen sense of timbre and is therefore very similar to Claudio Abbado, who greatly appreciated the musicians of the MCO because they were able to sense and produce his sound concept.”

1997: the Mahler Chamber Orchestra shortly after its founding
(Photo: Ulrike Weizsäcker)

1998: with Claudio Abbado in Aix-en-Provence
(Photo: Elisabeth Carecchio)
2003: with Daniel Harding at the Lucerne Festival
(Photo: Priska Ketterer)
2012: the premiere of “Written on Skin”
(Photo: Pascal Victor ArtcomArt)