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Boston, today: a musician’s report from the frontline

The baritone Sam McElroy was expecting to hear his partner, Gabriela Montero, play Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the Boston Symphony on  Monday. Then the bombs went off and the city ground to a halt. We asked for Sam’s reflections. Here’s what he wrote:


“And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet.”” Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Yesterday the sun shone in Boston, heralding a springtime that has been pathologically shy about making its appearance this year. The chill winds from the north had turned homewards and left us, making way for a promising warmth which meant only one thing: I would ditch the car and take the motorbike to the Beethoven 9 rehearsal.

Speeding beneath an overpass in eight lanes of traffic, my attention was drawn upwards to a solitary man, leaning against the rails holding a placard, white on green, which read, simply, “WE ARE ONE”. It took me a moment to recognize the reference to Monday’s barbaric news, so stealthily had mother nature changed the New England air.

I remember vividly the events of 9/11, passing a television shop window in London’s Moorgate, on my way to the Wigmore Hall Competition, wondering why everyone was gathered around in such muted disbelief. I remember how foolish I felt on the stage a few hours later, attempting to impress with Tchaikovsky “Romances”, knowing what most of the others could not, protected as they were in those pre-smartphone days by the impenetrable walls of that sacred hall, which refused to be silenced by zealous madness.

On Monday I was cushioned from the barbarism unfolding just a few blocks away, protected by the walls of another great musical bastion, Boston’s Symphony Hall. Alone in the stalls, I was watching my partner, Gabriela Montero, waging her own private war at the piano, accompanied by the glorious BSO in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5.

Those acquainted with Gabriela’s open and strenuous objections to the obscene murder rates to which her native Venezuela has become inured, will appreciate that she was not a happy woman on Monday, waking from the nightmare of the Venezuelan election farce. In such circumstances, her empathy for Ludwig Van B was palpable – his fifth piano concerto was written in 1809, a miserable year for the Austrians, with Vienna invaded by Napoleon and the economy decimated. I feared for the poor piano in the third movement, and this was only the rehearsal!

Beyond Gabriela’s fury, I was distracted by an endless legato of sirens, and not the enchanting femmes fatales of the Greek myths, but the portentous screaming of Boston’s entire police and fire department. Something was not right.

During the tender second movement adagio, when the outside world could not have been more remote, the news began to filter through. Claudia, another very charming Venezuelan and representative of the BSO staff, approached on apologetic tip-toes. “Are Gabriela’s girls watching the marathon, by any chance? There has been an incident.” Happily, they were not. Unhappily, they were following events on CNN. Sensation magnified.

As the orchestra took its break, the news flooded through the walls, as news does these days. It became clear that an act of barbarism had violently corrupted the innocent scene of marathon runners celebrating Patriot’s Day, the 113th edition of this proud Bostonian tradition. The abstraction of music was forgotten in an instant. Ben Schwartz, of the BSO’s artistic administration, was visibly moved but professionally composed. There was, clearly, no choice but to cancel the concert. Home was now the only place to be.

We were soon to find out that we have friends in common with the family who lost an eight year-old boy, whose mother and sister are critically injured. An unthinkable tragedy for a family turning out to support the noble, olympian endeavors of a loving husband and father.

But innocence is the abstract casualty. For the past few months we have been nursing the fears of Gabriela’s youngest daughter, 10 year-old Isabella, following the Colorado shootings and then Sandy Hook. She is afraid to go to the cinema, afraid of what might happen at school. There is no longer an innocent space, that womb from the womb in her young imagination. Every night at lights-out her last words are “Keep us safe!”. She sleeps with a rock and a candle-holder buried somewhere beneath her smiley dolphin pillow. My only trump card was the phony assurance that these things don’t happen where we live. I have no cards left. Last night she came to our room throughout the night, retching her fears.


I would like to say that yesterday’s rehearsal of the “Ode to Joy” symbolized a choric, resolute refusal to accept this barbarism. But the fact is that we are forced to accept it. Zealotry is violently thrust upon us and no amount of singing Beethoven can restore lost innocence, resurrect lives or regenerate limbs. Whatever its causes, its effects are indelible.

It was really just another rehearsal. We sang and talked tempi. The birds competed with us outside in the trees.

“Poo-tee-weet”, they said.

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  1. Thank you for this touching reflection. If you haven’t already, please make sure Isabella receives treatment. These reactions are common for most kids in one form or another – The good news is that good treatment resources are available (especially in the Boston area). Check out the list of resources under Managing the Stress section of this website – from Geeks without Bounds.

  2. Gary Carpenter says:

    I’m not sure why Venezuela needs to be dragged into this tragedy.

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