From the Archives: Carlo Maria Giulini, Intense Poet of the Podium Left Mark on Philharmonic

Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the L.A. Philharmonic in 1982.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
Times Staff Writer

Carlo Maria Giulini, who as conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from the late 1970s to the early ‘80s brought an intense yet subtle passion to the concert hall with his poetic style of music making, has died. He was 91.

Giulini died Tuesday in Brescia in northern Italy, his son, Alberto Maria Giulini, told Associated Press. In recent years the musician had resided in Milan, Italy. The cause of death was not reported.

The conductor arrived in Los Angeles with the seasoned qualities of a master, and he used them to inspire his musicians to new heights.


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“We have lost one of the greatest musicians of our time,” Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Philharmonic, said Wednesday. “He had an almost uncanny ability to transform the sound of an orchestra, any orchestra, into a dark and intense glow, which became his trademark over the years.”

Martin Bernheimer, music critic of the Los Angeles Times while Giulini was on the podium at the Philharmonic, called him “one of the major conductors of his period.”

“Giulini was from the old school; he was calm, subtle, a thinker,” Bernheimer said. “He wasn’t interested in easy effects or splash. He brought a mellowness to the orchestra.”

In a career that spanned almost 50 years, the Italian Giulini was principal conductor of both opera and symphony orchestras, from Milan’s La Scala to the concert halls of Rome, Vienna, Chicago and, finally, Los Angeles.

His early passion for opera, especially Italian opera, pointed toward a future spent primarily in the orchestra pit, but his perfectionist’s standards couldn’t accommodate the limitations of the opera world. He wanted more rehearsal time, fewer prima donnas to contend with and a pace that allowed him to rest and think between performances.

“I cannot be in a constant rush; I am not a machine,” he told The Times in 1977.

He made the symphony hall his first home and distinguished himself as a gifted interpreter, particularly of works by Verdi and Mozart. Gradually he expanded his repertoire to include the music of such composers as Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler.

He purposefully kept his range narrow and deep. “I can only make music that I understand, music that I believe, music that I love,” he told The Times.

Throughout his career, Giulini was surrounded by maestros with far more flamboyance: the stormy brilliance of Herbert von Karajan, who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, and the dazzle of Sir Georg Solti, who led the Chicago Symphony. Yet Giulini was considered by many critics and music aficionados as every bit their equal.

“Giulini was universally seen as the last great Romantic conductor,” Salonen said. “His tempos were majestic, phrasing incredibly expressive, balances perfect. This gentle and utterly humble man was able to inspire awe in his fellow musicians, as well as in audiences around the world.”

If Giulini was not as famous as some colleagues, Bernheimer told The Times in 2004, “it’s because he was only interested in the music. He didn’t have a publicity firm pushing his name. He was reluctant to give interviews. There was no snazzy life away from the podium, no scandals.”

After early appointments as the principal conductor of the Italian Radio Symphony in the mid-1940s and La Scala in the early ‘50s, Giulini made his U.S. debut conducting the Chicago Symphony in 1954.

He was also a frequent guest conductor in England, leading memorable performances of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” for the Royal Opera in its 1958 production by filmmaker Luchino Visconti and Verdi’s Requiem with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London several years later.

He became principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony in 1969 and kept up a relationship with that institution for more than 20 years.

“If you forced me to name my favorite orchestra, I suppose I still would have to say Chicago,” Giulini said in a 1975 interview with The Times.

During three of those years, he was also the music director of the Vienna Symphony, starting in 1973.

His last full-time appointment was as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he led from 1978 to 1984.

Highlights of his years at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — an original production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” that drew international acclaim; several recordings, including Beethoven’s Third and Dvorak’s Ninth symphonies — demonstrated his dramatic effect on the orchestra.

He won a Grammy in 1989 for a recording of Mozart with pianist Vladimir Horowitz and the La Scala opera orchestra.

“He was unique among conductors for the way he became totally involved in the music,” said Ernest Fleischmann, the former general manager of the L.A. Philharmonic, in a 2004 interview with The Times. “A musical score was like holy scripture to him.”

It was a coup for the Philharmonic to attract Giulini. His predecessor, the youthful Zubin Mehta, had been appointed music director in 1962 and over the next 16 years developed a big, bold sound for the orchestra.

Giulini, in contrast, came to Los Angeles when he was in his 60s and well-established as a consummate musician. Other conductors were on a first-name basis with players, but everyone called Giulini “maestro.”

He had received other offers to lead top orchestras but was unwilling to spend time on the administrative work or, in his early career, master the wide repertoire that a full-time position demands.

In Los Angeles, Fleischmann handled administrative matters — one reason that Giulini accepted the job.

After six years in California, however, the conductor resigned when his wife, Marcella, suffered a cerebral aneurysm.

“Somebody up there — I believe there is somebody up there — has made a decision,” Giulini told The Times in a farewell interview in 1984. “There must be a purpose. I do not question it.”

The couple moved back to their home in Milan, where Marcella Giulini remained in frail health until her death in 1995.

The conductor made lasting impressions on orchestra members with his unique blend of stunning recall and frequent forgetfulness. He could be congenial or stridently demanding. Although unfailingly courteous, he couldn’t always remember people’s names.

“During rehearsals, he’d point and say, ‘You, flute,’ ” recalled Orrin Howard, who was director of publications for the Philharmonic when Giulini was music director. “From another sort of conductor, that would be a problem, but the musicians adored Giulini. They knew they were living in a golden age of music.”

He won their hearts with his profound sensitivity to the sound of the orchestra and his startling self-discipline. He regularly led musicians from memory through long, difficult works, including a 90-minute performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which he conducted without a score. The musicians often stood up to cheer him after a concert, an event more rare than a standing ovation from the audience.

“The man was made of music,” Sidney Weiss, Giulini’s principal concertmaster in Los Angeles and earlier with the Chicago Symphony, told The Times. “He inspired people to play, almost beyond their ability. Musicians would float out of rehearsals.”

Forever after, the players compared a concert under Giulini to a spiritual event.

“There definitely was a Giulini sound,” said Alexander Treger, the conductor’s second concertmaster at the Philharmonic. “We began rehearsing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and five minutes later — because of his manner, his body language, his emotion -- the orchestra had a different sound than before.”

His self-composed presence on the podium only called greater attention to his sophisticated tastes. Early in his career, he had brought together Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli and soprano Maria Callas for productions of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and “Falstaff” at La Scala that were among his most famous performances.

His name was associated with the leading musicians of the day. He conducted mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and the New Philharmonia Orchestra in Bach’s Mass in B minor and led Horowitz and the orchestra at La Scala in a program of music by Schumann.

After just two years in California, he took the Philharmonic to Italy for a tour in 1980. It was a touching show of pride and confidence in the orchestra that, as Bernheimer noted, Giulini had led from brash to mellow and dense.

“Giulini triumphs at La Scala with his Californians,” read the headline of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra.

The conductor treated every musician as an equal. Once, during a rehearsal with soprano Kathleen Battle, he left the podium and stood a few inches away from her face.

“Your singing is very beautiful, but your acting is too human,” he said quietly. He proceeded to conduct her from a distance of six inches, and she sang like the angel he expected.

He could also be surprisingly flexible. He came to Los Angeles with an agreement that he would not conduct at the Hollywood Bowl. One year later, he decided to try it.

“I am not used to music in the natural air; it’s not normal to me,” he told The Times in July 1980 after his first concert at the Bowl. But the awestruck audience convinced him that it was worth it.

“I was so moved by the response,” he said. “Our concerts there have spiritual and moral value so long as a small part of the audience is touched.”

Born in Barletta, in southern Italy, on May 9, 1914, Giulini began playing violin at 5. He studied viola and composition at the Academy of Saint Cecilia in Rome and went on to play viola with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra under several legendary conductors, including Bruno Walter.

He served in the military during World War II. But when he left the service in 1944, he went into hiding because his anti-Fascist politics put him at risk of arrest during Benito Mussolini’s regime.

He spent nine months in hiding — until the day the Allied forces entered Rome.

The next day, the concert manager of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra asked Giulini to lead the first concert after the liberation and, within days, Giulini made his conducting debut in a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

Several years later, as the assistant conductor of the Rome Radio Symphony, he attracted the attention of Arturo Toscanini, the legendary music director of La Scala from the 1920s. Toscanini helped Giulini get his appointment at the opera house in 1953.

During his time at La Scala, Giulini once spent three weeks alone with Callas to develop her role as Violetta in “La Traviata.” He refused to adjust to a faster pace.

“I cannot make music the way some people make breakfast,” he once said.

After five years as principal conductor at La Scala, he left with no plans to conduct opera again. He did return to the form, however, most often on recordings. He conducted Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and “The Marriage of Figaro” in 1959, both well-received by critics. He gave occasional live performances as well, including a New York Metropolitan Opera production of “Figaro” in 1968.

Fourteen years later, when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in “Falstaff,” his return to the orchestra pit was treated as a major event in the international music world. Los Angeles did not have a permanent opera company at the time.

“For one golden moment, at least, this opera-starved city has become the center of the opera universe,” the New York Times declared about Los Angeles. The production traveled to London’s Covent Garden, was filmed by the BBC and was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon.

When not making music, Giulini enjoyed watching old movies, particularly westerns. He also liked to drive.

Thomas Stevens, principal trumpeter at the Philharmonic in Giulini’s day, said he once saw the conductor on the freeway, driving his Mercedes in a big hat, sunglasses and a scarf.

“Fellini couldn’t have thought it up,” Stevens told the New York Times.

In his younger years, Giulini was known as a ladies’ man, but that changed when he married Marcella in 1942.

“My wife is a queen,” he said in 1975, “even when she is ironing my shirts.”

She managed the finances — he never wrote a check — and the family homes in Rome, Milan and Switzerland. She traveled everywhere with him, except for the years when their children were very young.

In addition to Alberto, they had two other sons, Stefano and Francesco, who survive him along with several grandchildren.

“Giulini’s total commitment to the music was possible because his wife took care of everything else,” Fleischmann said. “When she fell ill, it effectively ended his career.”

After the couple moved back to Milan, Giulini occasionally accepted offers to conduct close to home. Berlin and London — short plane rides away — fit the requirements, and he worked in those cities several times before he retired fully in the late 1990s because of a heart condition.

In his later years, he took walks and read but avoided listening to music. His refined manners did not allow for complaining.

“I was involved in my sentiments, but now in my age I need to be quiet,” he said.


Carlo Maria Giulini left a stunning recorded legacy. Here are 10 of his most memorable recordings:

* Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”). Vienna Symphony. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano. (Deutsche Grammophon)

* Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”)/Schumann: “Manfred” Overture. Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Deutsche Grammophon)

* Brahms: Symphony No. 4. Chicago Symphony. (EMI)

* Dvorak: Symphony No. 9/Schubert: Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”). Los Angeles Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)

* Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Chicago Symphony. (EMI)

* Mozart: “Don Giovanni.” (EMI) Eberhard Waechter, Joan Sutherland, Luigi Alva, Gottlob Frick, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Giuseppe Taddei, Piero Cappuccilli. Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus of London. (EMI)

* Mozart: “Le nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro). Giuseppe Taddei, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Anna Moffo, Fiorenza Cossotto, Eberhard Waechter. Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus of London. (EMI)

* Verdi: “Falstaff.” Renato Bruson, Barbara Hendricks, Katia Ricciarrelli, Leo Nucci. Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Audio CD)

* Verdi: “Messa da Reqiuem/Quattro Pezzi Sacri.” (Requiem Mass/Four Sacred Pieces). Nicolai Ghiaurov, Nicolai Gedda, Christa Ludwig, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. (EMI)

* Verdi: “La Traviata.” Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Ettore Bastianini. Orchestra and chorus of La Scala Milan. (EMI).


Compiled by Times staff writers Mark Swed and Chris Pasles