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Conductor Carlo Maria Giulini dies at 91

Italian maestro performed at La Scala, around the world
/ Source: The Associated Press

Carlo Maria Giulini, the retired Italian maestro whose rigorous, magisterial and spiritual interpretations of the core classical music repertoire made him a conducting giant of the later 20th century, has died. He was 91.

Giulini died Tuesday in Brescia in northern Italy, his son Alberto Maria Giulini said Wednesday. The cause of the death wasn't given.

A young friend of the great Arturo Toscanini, he bridged the golden age of conducting with a later generation of Italian maestros like Riccardo Muti and Claudio Abbado.

After studying the viola and conducting at Rome's Academy of Santa Cecilia, Giulini made his conducting debut in 1944 in the Italian capital.

He had conducting stints at La Scala, the Chicago Symphony, the Vienna Symphony, and served as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1978 to 1985 — his last permanent post, which he resigned to spend more time with his ailing wife.

In Los Angeles, where he said his only friend was the comedian Danny Kaye, his contract specifically exempted him from any part in the social whirl. That was typical Giulini. A modest, nearly ascetic man, he saw conducting as a priestly mission, a ministry for the gods of classical music.

"We have to deal with genius, and we are small men," he once said.

In later years, Giulini stuck close to his home in Milan, conducting Europe's great orchestras but renouncing the opera pit because of the long rehearsals.

'I have to believe in every note'
Giulini concentrated on Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner and Schubert. He was a Mozartian in the opera house, conducting little Puccini or Wagner.

Defending his choice of repertoire in a newspaper interview for his 80th birthday, Giulini said: "I have to believe in every note, to feel myself immersed. If that doesn't happen, mere technique would take the field. The appropriation (of the music) must be rational and emotional, without ever forgetting that the conductor is a musician in the service of the geniuses of music. ... We are only interpreters."

Giulini's reverence for the masters often produced an almost religious quality in his works. His tempos slowed down considerably as he aged.

"Opinion has been divided about his slow tempos, but there is widespread acknowledgment of the exceptional mellowness of his interpretations, the richness of string textures and the seriousness of purpose with which he inspires both instrumentalists and singers," Robert Philip wrote in Giulini's entry in Grove Music Online.

Giulini also could produce performances of utmost clarity and grace. His 1960 recording of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" is filled with sunlight, a marvel of elegance and balance.

A number of his recordings, especially Verdi's "Requiem" and "Falstaff" are treasured by music buffs, and many Mozart-lovers considered his "Don Giovanni" the best version ever. Critics also gave Giulini high praise for his sensitive accompanying on concerto recordings.

Giulini's search for insight sometimes produced pauses in his career, when he would stay away from the podium for periods of reading, reflection and study.

"Music is an act of love," he would say, dismissing ambition. Career? "The word is repugnant to me," he told an interviewer. "I'm not like a corporal who has to become a captain."

Born in Barletta, near the southern Adriatic city of Bari, on May 9, 1914, Carlo Maria Giulini studied violin and viola. At 19, he won a viola position in the Santa Cecilia orchestra when it played in Rome's Teatro Augusteo.

Because of the theater's spectacular accoustics, it was a regular stop for the age's superstar conductors. Thus Giulini played under giants like Wilhelm Furtwangler, Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg and Richard Strauss.

Giulini received a conducting degree in 1941 from the Santa Cecilia conservatory, studying with Bernardino Molinari.

When war broke out, he went to the Yugoslav front with the Italian army. But he opposed Fascism and later went underground, hiding for nine months in a secret room in the house of his wife's uncle. A portrait of Mussolini hung on the wall outside.

Within weeks of the Allied liberation of Rome in 1944, Giulini emerged to conduct the Santa Cecilia orchestra in the freed city's first concert.

His old viola teacher once had told Giulini's father that the young musician would never be a conductor because his elbows were too weak. But after seeing him direct the orchestra, he admitted he was wrong, Giulini said.

In the years just after the war, Giulini led the RAI state broadcasting orchestras of Milan and Rome.

The elderly Toscanini heard a Giulini performance and summoned him to his home. The two became friends, an important source of support for the budding young conductor.

In 1951, Giulini took over as principal conductor at Milan's La Scala opera house. His 1956 "La Traviata" with the diva Maria Callas was memorable.

His made numerous recordings with the major record companies, and won a Grammy in 1989.

Giulini's wife, Marcella, died in 1995. They had three sons: Francesco, who was his father's manager; Stefano, a physician; and Alberto, an artist.

A private funeral will be held Friday in the northern Italian town of Bolzano, where Giulini lived.