Sunday, May 28, 2017

Italian Passages I: Andiamo!

The Last Supper in situ
[The first in an irregular series of commentaries on Minnesota Public Radio's Italian Passages classical music-themed cruise and tour of Italy, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the network's daily live concert program, Performance Today and led by PT host Fred Child.]

Italian Passages began in Milan with an impressive high-end dinner last night at our hotel, the Rosa Grand , followed the next day by a whirlwind tour of Il Duomo, the famed Gothic cathedral, followed in turn by a backstage tour of La Scala (including a quick trek through the museum), a viewing of The Last Supper, and a bus tour of some of the city's notable neighborhoods.

We had seen the Duomo before, so for us the highlights of the day were a quick glimpse of a rehearsal of the Franco Zeffirelli production of La Boheme at La Scala (which uses a remarkable two-level set) and the Da Vinci masterpiece. We've all seen pictures of it, but viewing the work in its original setting—a modest monastery—emphasized the revolutionary nature of Da Vinci's painting. For its time, it is startlingly realistic and filled with the kind of details that are lacking in the works of his contemporaries. You can see the reflections of the robes of the disciples in the metal plates, for example, or catch a glimpse of dinnerware through a glass bottle.

Back at the hotel, we were treated to Prosecco and then a brief but highly varied and entertaining recital by Roberto Plano, who was born in Italy but now teaches in Boston. Fred Child prefaced the concert by praising the wide range of Mr. Plano's performance style, and the program that followed fully validated that praise. Opening with a delicate Mozartian Andante by Andrea Luchesi—a once-famous contemporary Mozart who has now become a historical footnote—Mr. Plano the moved on to the Olympian drama of the opening "Invocation" from Liszt's Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, shifting musical gears with the ease of a seasoned Grand Prix driver. Next was a limpid Respighi Notturno (from his Six Pieces for Piano from 1904), followed by Black Earth by the Turkish composer/pianist Fazil Say, in which the pianist imitates the sound of a Turkish lute by damping individual strings with his fingers.

The concert concluded with a virtuoso run through Ginastera's Suite de Danzas Criollas and a wildly jazzy selection from Friedrich Gulda's Play Piano Play. For me, though, one of the high points was Mr. Plano's demonstration of his ingenious technical solution to the problem of producing a piano transcription of Tárrega's moving Recuerdos de La Alhambra. The guitar original calls for the performer to repeatedly strike a single string with the ring, middle, and index fingers (a tecnique known as tremolo), producing an ethereal combination of pizzicato and legato. Mr. Plano's arrangement has the pianist repeatedly striking the same key the first time through and then, on the repeat, rapidly alternating notes an octave apart using the thumb and little finger (also known as tremolo). You can see a video demonstration on the Performance Today Facebook page.

After which it was off to bed because the next day promised to be (and was) eventful. But that's another story.

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