Thursday, June 01, 2017

Italian Passages III: Completely Organic

[The third 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.]

Our first full day in Venice was a busy one. First thing in the morning, we left the Uniworld River Countess—the river cruise ship that would be our "floating hotel" in Venice for the next week—for a guided tour of the Accademia Musem (Gallerie dell'Accademia). Our guide Nicoletta had a degree in art history and was, as a result, enthusiastically informative as she pointed out highlights of Italian painting from the 14th through 17th centuries. We then had the afternoon free, so my wife and I set out to explore Venice senza una guida.

We quickly got lost, but being lost in Venice is usually a temporary thing, and while wandering around we managed to stumble on the La Fenice opera house, where we were scheduled to see a performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia later in the week. It left us a bit footsore but with a nice feel for the many twists and turns of this unique city of islands.

For the organ concert that evening—which was, like most of our concerts, a private event for our group— we elected to give our aching arches a rest and opted to take a water taxi to the concert venue, the Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari. We were glad we did. The taxis carry around a dozen passengers and provide a fascinating view of the city's many canali and calli (side streets often so narrow that pedestrians are sometimes obliged to walk single file). That's especially true if you elect to stand up at the rear of the boat as we did, giving us a pilot's-eye view of the journey.

The concert itself was notable for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that it was the last one to be played on the 90 year old organ (pictured above; the pipes are hidden behind the painting) prior to its disassembly for repair and restoration. Indeed, as Fred Child pointed out in a brief pre-concert talk, it is possible that it could be the last concert ever for the instrument because of the inherently risky nature of the restoration process.

Happily, soloist Pierpaolo Turetta—an internationally celebrated performer and professor at the Padua Conservatory of Music—gave his instrument a fine send-off, temporary or otherwise. The program opened with a magisterial Fantasie and Fugue in g minor, BWV 552, by Bach, followed by a performance Messiaen's fanciful "Joy and brightness of the Glorified Bodies" that showed off the organ's many colors. Next was Reger's dramatic Fantasie and Fugue on B.A.C.H. ("H" is B natural in German notation with "B" is actually B flat) Op. 26, followed by an even more wildly eccentric Preludium and Fugue on B.A. C.H. by Franz Liszt.

The latter is an example of Liszt at his most excessive and includes some spectacularly fast passages for the pedals. Mr. Turetta executed them with an agility that would have done credit to Fred Astaire. Mr. Turetta's assistant (whose name I never did learn) deserves considerable praise as well for the rapid and accurate way she changed stops on the keyboard, skillfully working around Mr. Turetta's hands on the console's three manuals (keyboards).

A standing ovation led to an encore—one of Bach's Vivaldi transcriptions, appropriately enough. That ended the official part of the program, but while some of the audience were gathered around the console getting a demonstration of the various stops by Mr. Turetta's assistant, we got yet another encore when a teenaged organ student was given an opportunity to play Bach's D minor prelude. It was an impressive performance which, happily, I managed to capture on video.

And then it was time for the return water taxi ride through the dark and magical Venetian night. I even had a chance to sing some Great American Songbook standards back on the ship with Luis, who holds forth in the piano bar until closing.

Yes, we are having fun.

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