Saturday, June 10, 2017

Italian Passages VIII: Arrivederci Roma


[The eighth and last 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.]

Thursday, June 8th, was the tour’s one and only full day in Rome.  It was also the final day of our tour and therefore a cause of mixed emotions.  On the one hand, we had a long and often informative walking tour that morning that hit many (but not nearly enough) of the Eternal City’s notable sights.  On the other hand, it meant we would say farewell to our traveling companions of the past ten days, many of whom we had come to know well and whose life stories proved to be fascinating and varied.

Still, it was fun to visit places my wife and I had previously known only as movie backgrounds, including the Piazza di Spagna with its famous steps (three flights, in honor of the Holy Trinity) and the Trevi Fountain, immortalized in the concert hall by Respighi in his Fountains of Rome and in popular song by the 1955 Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn hit "Three Coins in the Fountain" from the film of the same name.  I wish our walking tour had included more of Rome’s Greatest Hits, such as the Forum or the Colosseum, but as we were all a bit footsore by the end (four miles on my Fitbit!), perhaps it was just as well to save these for another time.  As it was, we finished the morning and early afternoon with a leisurely lunch at La Carbonara, the restaurant that invented the famous pasta dish that bears its name, and had the rest of the afternoon to rest our tired tootsies before the final big event of the tour: the closing concert of the Rome Chamber Music Festival.

Founded back in 2003 by the noted American violinist Robert McDuffie, the festival has had many homes over the years.  Since 2012 it has taken place in the Baroque splendor of the seventeenth century Palazzo Barberini.  Located atop the Quirinal Hill (the highest of Rome’s fabled seven hills), the palazzo is an imposing edifice, with a curving marble staircase that leads to the concert venue, the massive Gran Salone, with its cheerfully pagan ceiling fresco, The Triumph of Divine Providence by Pietro da Cortona (pictured). After many days of overdosing on sculpture and paintings of what a friend once dubbed “martyr porn,” it was a welcome sight.

As Mr. McDuffie notes in the program book, the festival “includes at least one work of an American composer each year, but its identity adheres to a true international ideal by inviting musicians from all over the world.”  Thursday night’s concert was a demonstration of that ideal, with works by Beethoven and Saint-Saëns as well as the first movement the String Quintet by American bassist Edgar Meyer.  The musicians themselves were mostly Italian, although there were players from Germany, Japan and the United States as well.

Mr. Meyer’s work, which opened the program, was an ingratiating series of increasingly creative variations on a simple five-note theme that had, to my ears, a strong feel of Appalachian folk song.  It got what must surely be the definitive performance, with Mr. Meyer playing bass and leading the ensemble of  violinists Harry Ward and George Meyer (son of the composer), violist Daniele Valabrega, and cellist Atticus Mellor-Goldman.

It was interesting to contrast Mr. Meyer’s use of folk-inspired material with the Beethoven Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 16, which followed.  The Grave introduction of the first movement is weighty enough (and reminiscent of the slow introductions in Haydn’s later symphonies), but the Allegro ma non troppo that follows is a jolly little waltz that would not be out of place in a dance hall.  And the main theme of the final 6/8 Rondo has a kind of “hunting song” feel to it.  Written when Beethoven was young and just starting to make a name for himself, the work has, at least to my ears, some echoes of the countryside so beloved by the composer throughout his life.

The quartet got a fine performance from festival artists Elena Matteucci on piano and Luca Sanzò on viola, along with Young Artist Program members Gaia Trionfera on violin and Calvin Wong on cello.  The younger players worked so seamlessly with the more experienced professionals that it would probably have been impossible to tell them apart had I been inexplicably blindfolded.

The concert ended with a somewhat quirky version of the popular Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns. The composer wrote the piece primarily for the private amusement of his musical friends and explicitly banned its public performance during his lifetime, afraid that it might eclipse his more serious work in popularity.  Subsequent history has apparently proved him correct.

Originally scored for an eleven-player ensemble that included two pianos, xylophone, and glass harmonica, Carnival of the Animals is often heard in a full orchestra arrangement, so it was fun to see it done live with the original instrumentation, even if a glockenspiel played the role of the rather rare glass harmonica.  What made this performance truly remarkable, though, was the inclusion of special lighting effects and film clips projected on the rear wall of the house, along with dancing by Chiara Giancaterina in the final two movements.

The choice of movie segments was often humorous, frequently contrasting animals and humans to the detriment of the latter.  For the “Turtles” movement, or example, images of graceful sea turtles gliding through the water were juxtaposed with slow-motion shots of people clumsily splashing around at the beach, while “Hens and Roosters” alternated between cartoon chickens and 1950s beauty contest participants.   The famous “Swan” movement alternated elegant footage of the bird itself with clips from Swan Lake, with added visual stimulus from Ms. Giancaterina’s athletic dancing, which seemed to parody the images being shown behind her.

It was, frankly, all a bit much.  In the final analysis, I felt that the visuals tended to distract from the music more than support and enhance it.  At one point I simply began to tune it out so I could concentrate on the virtuoso performances on stage.  The audience loved it, though, bringing everyone back for an encore of the final movement, visuals and all.

And then, alas, it was all over and time for us to wend our way down the marble stairs and pile into our taxis for a somewhat wild ride through the Roman night, making our way through the city’s notoriously unnerving traffic and streets clogged with revelers who seemed oblivious to the fact that the human body is in no position to argue with an automobile.  Some of the group continued their travels but, as far as Italian Passages and this series of blog posts goes, this was the end.  And a fitting one it was.

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