This unique orchestra, unanimously regarded as the world´s leading youth orchestra, is probably the most important and most sustainable heritage of a visionary artist, the great conductor Claudio Abbado (1933-2014): as Music Director of the Vienna State Opera (1986-1991), Abbado realised that Vienna´s rich musical tradition had many roots that did not finish with Austria´s borders: from the adjacent countries Hungary and (then) Czechoslovakia, from (then) Yugoslavia and Poland until the (then) Soviet Union. And yet, young talented musicians from these countries had no chance to encounter, let alone to make music with their fellow Austrian colleagues in the times of the Cold War.

Abbado, who never accepted a mere bureaucratic and administrative attitude, overcame all logistical and political limitations he encountered and founded the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (GMJO) in Vienna in 1986/87. Originally conceived for musicians from Austria and the then socialist countries, it became open to musicians up to 26 years from all over Europa after the fall of the communist system in Eastern Europe, and it is still today the only youth orchestra for the whole of Europe. Since 1991, it is under the high patronage of the Council of Europe and since 2012, it is a proud UNICEF ambassador Austria.

Uncompromising both in his humanistic vision and the musical standards he wanted to achieve, Claudio Abbado made this orchestra an elite institution from the very beginning: annual live auditions in all member countries and the thorough preparation in all sections of the orchestra under the guidance of professional orchestra musicians from the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic (Abbado had succeeded Herbert von Karajan at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989), secured a matchless technical and musical level which separates the GMJO from all other youth orchestras.

Claudio Abbado, who remained Music Director of the GMJO until his death in 2014, conducted the orchestra on its first projects – but he also invited, from the very beginning, his most prominent conducting colleagues to work with “his” GMJO, since he wanted the GMJO to live on should he one day not be able to continue. Today, practically all great conductors of our time, from Pierre Boulez to Herbert Blomstedt, Sir Colin Davis, Iván Fischer, Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons, Seiji Ozawa, Antonio Pappano or Franz Welser-Möst and to the younger generation – David Afkham, Daniel Harding, Philippe Jordan, Vladimir Jurowski or, most recently, the shooting star Lorenzo Viotti – are regular guest conductors. Many leading singers, pianists, violinists join them for what they unanimously regard as a unique musical and human experience.

Today, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester appears regularly at leading concert halls and festival worldwide, such as the Salzburg, Edinburgh and Lucerne Festivals, the BBC Proms, the Suntory Hall Tokyo, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Dresden Semperopera, the iconic Elbphilharmonie Hamburg or the Vienna Musikverein; it has realized several operatic productions and huge orchestral tours to North, Middle and South America, to the Middle and the Far East.

All these venues and festivals engage the GMJO for concerts alongside the most prestigious professional orchestras. It is therefore rarely being compared to other youth orchestras, and in fact, whilst renewing itself through live auditions every year, it is much more than a project or training orchestra. Critics praise the unique string sound and the musical maturity of its concerts, separating the GMJO from all other, however proficient, youth orchestras: “This is the top end of the youth orchestra market, probably the only one that sounds like an exemplary professional orchestra.” (Financial Times, 2005)

Professional orchestras regard the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester as the most important talent pool for their own recruitment, and therefore, countless former members of the GMJO are today working with leading orchestras all over Europe; Claudio Abbado´s other orchestral foundations, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and the Orchestra Mozart were fuelled with members of the GMJO, and, to name but a few, the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic together have more than 40 former GMJO members within their ranks. For that reason, the prestigious Staatskapelle Dresden, one of the oldest and most renowned orchestras of the world, initiated a close partnership with the GMJO in 2012.

Also in the field of repertoire, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester stands apart from all other youth orchestras. Its programmes are never mainstream or easy listening, they are always engaging and demanding, and they follow thoroughly planned dramaturgical concepts. Many commissions to living composers and first performances of their works could be realised, making the GMJO an important player in the music world.

Abbado was often asked what is so special about this orchestra, and he used to respond that he learned immensely from the young musicians who know no limitations and are not yet spoiled by the daily work in a professional orchestra, who are hungry for making music with and for listening to each other. This made him reflect about his own music making, and apart from the pure enjoyment he added that he learned and profited as much from them as they did from him. The same is true for all guest artists: they enjoy to work with the young talented musicians of the GMJO, and after their first encounter with this miracle of an orchestra that reinvents itself every year, they happily return as often as they can. But not for financial reasons: everybody who participates in the GMJO projects does so for pedagogical, musical and humanistic reasons; the orchestra musicians do not get any remuneration, and all guest artists also donate a great fraction of their fees to the orchestra. It is all about making music together and sharing experiences, whilst bureaucracy, false stardom and vanities have no place within its projects.

The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Claudio Abbado´s legacy, is a success story, and it is also the story of a restless striving for quality, for the best possible orchestral training and for what Abbado regarded as ideal rehearsal and music-making conditions – but it is also a matter of continuous fighting for the necessary financial support: in its 31st year, the GMJO continues to address governments, foundations, sponsors and individual donors to contribute to this idealistic project which ensures the future of our cultural heritage by investing into the next generation.

Text by Alexander Meraviglia-Crivelli