An hour before Daniel Barenboim was scheduled to pick up his baton, there were already small groups of people huddled in various corners of Piazza della Scala in Milan. They were the first of thousands who came to pay tribute to Claudio Abbado.
By the time the police cordoned off the square to cars and trams, the piazza was full, and still there were streams of music lovers arriving from via Manzoni, via Santa Margherita, via Giuseppe Verdi and the Galleria. Various people pushed through towards the theatre’s shut doors, hoping to get the best seat. But no-one was going to be allowed in. This performance by the La Scala Philharmonic was just for Abbado. The auditorium was empty.
At ten to six, the central door under the portico opened, and the lights were turned on for the Rai Television cameras who relayed the concert on Italian television, and to the world via internet streaming. Between each of the three doors was a locandina for the tribute with a diagonal black band across one corner. The two other doors were opened just before the first notes of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony were heard.
The agitated piazza fell silent, cell phones were put away, and flash photography ceased. Amplified bass notes made the window panes on the left of the main entrance rattle. Tears were shed and noses wiped, and halfway through the symphonic movement an icy breeze blew through the crowd. A tall man in a purple hat, who had accompanied his elderly mother, put an arm around her shoulder; a young violinist hugged his instrument case; a minute old lady stared fixedly at the chandelier above the main door with watery eyes… who knows what memories she was revisiting.
Photographers looked down from the windows of the town council building on the opposite site of the square, and office workers stepped out on to their balconies to look down at the crowds below.
Twenty minutes later, the music came to an end, and after a few seconds of silence, applause broke out.
Almost immediately the three main doors were closed by the Milanese police, and the crowd started to disperse. The piazza’s habitual hubbub slowly returned.
Claudio Abbado managed to silence the always chaotic square in front of the La Scala theatre where he was musical director for eighteen years. He gave so much music to his hometown, and his hometown saw him off with respect, and a poignant and poetic musical tribute.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.