Claudio Abbado's concerts were life-changing events for anyone lucky enough to hear them. Towards the end of his life, above all with the concerts he gave with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra , which he founded in 2003 and with whom he gave the last concerts of his life – unforgettable, utterly shattering performances of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and Bruckner's Ninth - Abbado had taken orchestral music into a new realm of possibility and experience. The Lucerne project was the zenith of a life in music that had as its essential credo a word that you don't always associate with conductors, those supposed tyrants of the podium: "listen". He used that word more than any other in the rehearsals I saw him lead with the orchestra, a hand-picked ensemble of some of the greatest chamber musicians, orchestral players, and soloists in the world, with the young musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at its core (another orchestra Abbado founded, in addition to the European Union Youth Orchestra , the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester , and Orchestra Mozart ). The message of listening was about encouraging every player in the huge ensemble needed to play Mahler's symphonies to listen to one another, to know the score as well as he did. Their performances of all but the 8th , which Abbado didn't have the chance to play in Lucerne, are the most revelatory and moving Mahler performances of recent decades - arguably ever. The orchestra played with the subtlety, freedom, and intensity of chamber music, revealing new light on the music from within. But there was another, deeper kind of listening that Abbado wanted to create, and that was to catalyse his musicians and his audiences to listen, to have contact with the musical substance not merely of the sounds the orchestra makes, but with the silence that comes before and after the music. That sounds ludicrous, paradoxical for a concert of orchestral music, which is all about the sounds, after all! But with those musicians in Lucerne, Abbado was able to lift the veil on some other realm of experience, to put us in touch with a larger mystery even than the notes the orchestra was playing. And what might seem riddle-like in words is unarguably, tangibly real when you encounter it: watch and listen to Abbado's performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony (all the Mahler performances, and many of the other Lucerne concerts , are on DVD or Blu-Ray) to hear the most profoundly full, physical silence you may ever experience at the end of the final movement. Mahler's music passes into another world in the closing bars of the symphony; the silence that Abbado, the musicians, and the audience share after the sounds of the orchestra have crossed the border into nothingness actually embodies whatever that place might be. At the opposite end of the expressive extreme, but with exactly the same power to warp space, time, and existence, was the miraculous, massive coda of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony , when Abbado brought the Lucerne orchestra to the Royal Festival Hall in London , a performance that catapulted its audience into the cosmos. Abbado's concerts with Lucerne always had these moments of epiphany, of revelation. But last year's programmes in Lucerne were different. That Schubert Unfinished and Bruckner 9 took place in that transfigured state of being from the very first note to the last. The whole concert was a communion between Abbado and his players of devastating intimacy and astonishing emotional bravery, which asked the most profound questions about what the musical experience, and even what life might be about, with its beginnings and unfinished endings, its questions and unfilled answers, its sounds and its silences. Abbado's concerts weren't mere performances of pieces of music, they were searing, transformative existential journeys . That they have come to an end is an unimaginable loss.
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