Sunday, June 04, 2017

Italian Passages VI: If it ain't Baroque...

[The sixth 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.]

The Thursday and Friday of our first full Italian adventure week were largely taken up with day trips to, respectively, the town of Ravenna and the metropolis of Bologna.  We also had not one but two excellent programs of Baroque music.

The principal attraction in Ravenna was the basilica of San Vitale, with its Byzantine architecture and early Christian mosaics (pictured above), notable for the feeling of light and joy they convey. After overdosing on paintings and statuary in which the emphasis was on the later Roman Catholic obsession with blood, suffering, and death (what a friend of mine calls “martyr porn”), the simple cheerfulness of the glass mosaics was a welcome relief.  The town itself, with its narrow, mostly motor vehicle-free streets, was also a welcome change of pace.

Bologna has too many principal attraction to count, but the tour focused on the anatomy theatre at the University of Bologna, where students learned human anatomy by dissecting corpses, as well as the "Stabat Mater" library, named after Rossini’s famed choral work. With a founding date of 1088, it’s the oldest continuously operating university in the world. 

The tour also included the city’s stunning Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica (International Museum and Library of Music), which my wife and I first saw a few years ago.  Should you ever make it to Bologna (a course of action we can highly recommend; it’s a fascinating city) a trip to the museum is essential if you’re any kind of music lover. 

The first (and, for me, the best) of our two Baroque concerts took place in the lounge of our ship, the River Countess, when violinist Anthea Kreston, our musician in residence, played Biber’s Passacaglia and the monumental “Chaconne” movement from Bach’s Partita in D Minor.  Both works have in common the fact that they are essentially a series of variations on a bass line, but they are otherwise radically different.

The Biber piece is fairly straightforward set of 64 virtuoso expansions on a simple four-note descending motif that can be found in a wide range of compositions, including the Gethsemane scene in Jesus Christ Superstar and (as Ms. Kreston demonstrated in a humorous “audience participation” moment) the Ray Charles classic “Hit the Road, Jack.” 

The Bach is a different matter altogether.

Possibly inspired by the death of the composer’s first wife, Maria Barbara, this remarkable 15-minute work is a harrowing trip from darkness to light and then back to darkness again (but a different kind of darkness, because it’s Bach). The intimacy of the setting greatly enhanced the already significant power of the music, but it was Ms. Kreston’s muscular, impassioned performance that really put it over. When the last dramatic note sounded there was a brief hush, after which one of our party murmured “what a journey.”  Indeed.

The concert that capped our day in Bologna was less dramatic, but no less engaging.  Titled “Baroque Treasures,” it took place in the small Chiesa dei Santi Vitale e Agricola in Arena (the Church of Saints Vitale and Agricola in the Arena, named after two saints who were martyred in the gladiatorial games) and featured an excessively talented ensemble consisting of violinists Elicia Silverstein and Boris Begelman, cellist Mauro Valli, and the ensemble’s leader, Pedro Alcàcer, on theorbo and Baroque guitar. The lively and varied program included works by well-known composers like Purcell, Vivaldi, and Corelli along with music by lesser-known masters like Alessandro Piccinini (who essentially invented the theorbo) and the violin virtuoso Giovanni B. Fontana.

For me, though, the most memorable aspect of the program was the Allettamento No. 6 by Giuseppe Valentini, a work which has not had a public performance in three centuries.  In her introductory comments, Ms. Silverstein noted that the title translates roughly as “seduction” and that all of the movements have titles suggesting flirtation of some sort.  She and Mr. Valli gave it a fittingly seductive performance, in which their friendly interaction and Ms. Silverstein’s expressive face were major enhancements to their flawless playing.

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