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One of the world's best living conductors, associated with both operatic and orchestral conducting, having been the principal musical figure for many years in Milan, in Berlin, and in Vienna.

Born in Milan in 1933, he studied piano under his father Michelangelo Abbado, then studied conducting in Vienna. He took the first prize in the Koussevitsky Competition in 1958 and the Mitropoulos Prize in 1963.

He premièred with La Scala in Milan in 1960. He was musical director there between 1968 and 1986, and while there founded the Orchestra della Scala, a symphonic orchestra to complement the one used for opera.

He first performed with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1965, at the Salzburg Festival, then in Vienna in 1967. He was musical director of the Vienna State Opera between 1986 and 1991, and additionally became in 1987 the general musical director of the city of Vienna. In this capacity he founded in 1988 the Wien Modern festival, an interdisciplinary celebration of all modern art forms. He has been artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival from 1994.

The third great orchestra he has led is the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which he first conducted in 1966. he was appointed principal conductor and artistic director in 1989 in succession to the late and long-serving Herbert von Karajan. He has introduced thematic years and concert performance of opera to the Berlin Phil's annual cycle. He has announced that he would not seek renewal, so this is his last year with Berlin.

His recordings include complete cycles of many of the great symphonists, such as Beethoven, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky.

As well as these activities he is a promoter of youth music, and founded the European Union Youth Orchestra in 1978 and the Gustav Mahler Jugend Orchester in 1986. With the cellist Natalia Gutman he introduced a series of collaborative chamber music rehearsals with young musicians to the Berlin Festival Week, from 1992.