Pablo Urbina | When words Fail…
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When words Fail…

“When words fail, music speaks”

I could not have myself chosen better words to describe what I am sure most people felt yesterday after the horrendous terrorist attack in Manchester. Any form of terrorism is appalling, but one targeted mainly towards children and youth, it leaves everyone speechless.

The quote that opens this blog is by Danish writer and poet Hans Christian Andersen, and it was chosen by Gareth Davies, Chairman of the London Symphony Orchestra, to end his remarks about Monday´s tragedy right before their astonishing performance of Mahler´s 9th symphony. My friend, who had invited me to watch the concert, and who was also understandably touched by the tragic events, had mentioned earlier that he could not think of a more fitting piece of music to be performed yesterday; by the end of the symphony, and particularly after having witnessed such a performance by the LSO and Maestro Bernard Haitink, I fully understood his words.


The concept of death seems to be constantly present through the symphony, the atmosphere that is created throughout the piece makes you feel completely at ease at times, and reflective and moved at others; just when you find yourself in a moment of musical joy, the mood shifts and you begin to confront the deepest of human emotions within yourself. Last night many of us in the audience felt a sense of uncertainty, fear and frustration. We were also feeling the need for fear not to run our lives, alongside a desire to move on whilst trying to digest how the human experience can account for tragedies such as Monday night´s. Too many different emotions that are hard to reconcile in one´s body, but that were powerfully expressed through the music that we listened to last night, and that perhaps served as catalyst for us to process information that is perhaps too hard to comprehend with words. Indeed, when words fail, music speaks.

I was not the least surprised when I saw Maestro Haitink amongst the top 20 best conductors of all time ( I have performed as horn player under his baton, I have watched him conduct in concerts and attended his rehearsals, and have even had the privilege to informally assist him for his performance of Mahler 7 at the Royal College of Music. I remember my fond conversations with him about the nature of Mahler´s music, its beauty and complexity, and how important it is to understand as conductor that you are working with performers that, regardless of their age, are foremost musicians. His eloquence with the baton coupled with his economy of gesture (and of commentary in rehearsal) creates a perfect narrative for the music which not only gives a sense of direction and purpose to the music but also allows the musicians to express their musicianship. His performances (specially if an orchestra like LSO is beside him) are breathtaking, moving and exciting. He truly has that “x” ingredient, the one that you cannot describe with words, but that makes an orchestra sound completely different. The London Symphony Orchestra is of course very fortunate to be regularly conducted by a lot of conductors that possess this “x” ingredient.

Haitink Urbina watermarked

I would not say that yesterday´s performances was flawless, though pretty close. Allowing the musicians to express their emotions and feelings towards the music (they probably also needed to channel their feelings towards the tragedy of Monday), created however some of those moments for which a live performance has no counterpart; the palette of musical textures and colours was incredible, instruments seemed to fuse together with their sounds and there were some moments in which you could not hear a single breath or a movement in the audience.

What a fitting symphonic tribute to the victims of the attack; may their families find peace and consolation when words fail. And thank you to LSO and Maestro Haitink for allowing music to speak to so many of us.

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