Out with the Old and in with the New!

2016 has been described as a year of great losses in the field of exceptional persons who have left this earthly plane to reach immortality in whatever terms one defines that word.

Their names are imprinted in our ears and in our hearts: David Bowie, Prince and (for me especially) Leonard Cohen among so many others.

As a lover of classical music I would add the following to be especially remembered among, again, a very considerable list of departed, inspiring persons:

Pierre Boulez, composer and conductor (e.g. of Berg’s ’Lulu’s’ first complete performance).

Nicholas Harnoncourt, Early Music pioneer conductor

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, British composer (particularly for me. See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/farewell-to-max/ )

Einojuhani Rautavaara, Finnish composer (remember his ‘Canticus Arcticus with those haunting polar bird sounds?).

Neville Marriner, British conductor and violinist. Remember the Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields?

Some may say that quite a few of these greats had a good innings (after all, even Beethoven didn’t survive to his sixtieth birthday and Schubert was just turned thirty-one when he left the world). However, they all represent a great loss to our lives, a taking away of unique richness and a reminder that we too are getting older…..

There are the personal losses too. For me there was a loved relative to which I felt very close. My uncle, who was professor of French literature and an admired poet, I remember particularly for the wonderful mountain walks he took me when I wasn’t yet a teenager and for his deep appreciation of art and architecture and the visits he would take me to art galleries and ancient buildings. His sense of humour was both whimsical and pointed and he had a deep faith which many of us would envy.

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Just one day after Christmas another deep loss: a friend with whom I had shared so many walks in this lovely part of Italy where I live. As I wrote to his widow, an equally keen walker: “Dear ***** we are so saddened by your news. We will always treasure the time we spent with **** and you: those wonderful walks on the hills and mountains surrounding us in Italy – the Pisan mountain, the hill of Vinci, that big trek around the Pania della Croce, just to mention a few. ****’s kindness and hospitality to us was so exceptional. We shall always remember him as one of the dearest persons we have ever met. We feel so privileged to have been able to share some of our most convivial moments with you and ****. We send you and your family our deepest most heartfelt condolences and our thoughts are near you in this saddest of losses.”

There are also losses of people who we never knew and who so unnecessarily lost their lives. I’m referring to victims of that cancerous social disease, terrorism – a madness that must be cured if humankind is to have any future, just as wars must be halted in favour of grinding one’s teeth and actually talking to each other.

There are finally losses of persons who are still alive but who, through an unexpected misunderstanding are no longer with us in heart and mind. Political views have much to do with this and, regrettably, a particular event in June this year in the UK has divided both friends and families. I understand from friends living in America that the same sort of thing has happened over there with regard to the presidential elections.

The simple fact is that life is just like a game of chance (or rather a game of chance is just like life). Nothing can be predicted. Nothing is certain (except death and taxes, of course). The one thing that is certain is that in the end we are all losers – the owner of life’s casinò (gambling house such as in Bagni di Lucca was famous for) ultimately gets to win.

What more appropriate note then to finish this year than photos of our recent visit to the old games of chance, destiny and fortune displayed in Bagni di Lucca’s Terme alla Villa’s magnificent Palazzo Buonvisi and have them described to us by the master croupier, Virgilio, who also reconstructed this marvellous collection:

I wish all my blog readers a very Happy New Year and may the game of life play gently with you and make you win at least occasionally!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tradition and Betrayal

On the stage was a large ‘Orchestra Filarmonica’.  In Italy this may mean anything from a village band to a full-scale symphony orchestra. In this case, the twenty-odd musicians consisted of woodwind expanded by a bass clarinet, a brass section including a very large tuba in addition to trumpets, trombone and saxophones, and a percussion section which comprised a ‘gran cassa’ (Italian for bass drum) .

I knew the sound that would inform (or sometimes assault!) our ears for just over two hours would be both tremendously loud and delicately soft.

And it was!

From the opening quasi-funereal solemn tread, so reminiscent of village religious processions in these parts, to the final, almost laissez-faire, resolving conclusion, Valiensi’s composition explored every possible timbre extractable from his highly professional and sensitive ensemble.

To me this apotheosis of local tradition, aleatoric jazz-like improvisations, profound chaconne sections, Mahlerian transformations, Nymanesque minimalist episodes and sudden tragi-comic mood transitions seemed like a gigantic rondo with the ritornello appearing in different thorough-composed forms and alternating with grippingly unknown ventures into solos prompted by the conductor Valiensi himself.

Because the musicians themselves weren’t too sure what to expect in the solo passages the tension was all the more exciting. At one stage, for example, Valiensi gave out an extra score page to all orchestral players. One player (one of the flutes) remarked that his was handed to him upside down. Was he to play it this way or did the conductor make a mistake in handing it out?

As for timbres and sound volumes: they ranged from the softest of breathing, sometimes just pressing the instrument keys or slipping out the trombone slide and reinserting it, to fortissimi which must have been at least five f’s loud.

Within this massive soup of a piece was mixed every conceivable shred of ‘musica bandistica’ to be heard in our part of Italy: from religious hymns to jaunty popular melodies to traditional tunes to Ivesian sound phasing to Fellinian-like turns of musical phrase.

Fronting this vast kaleidoscopic journey through musical atmospheres were three TV screens covered with black boxes descending from above on ropes. When the telescreens were uncovered, partly or wholly, they revealed creative screen interference or snippets of 8 mm home movies from the fifties and sixties showing people and their pastimes in an Italy which for most of us remains a strange nostalgia, indeed a different world.

 

Or is it? Valiensi’s piece posed the big question: where will ‘musica bandistica’ go from here in Italy? So many ‘bande filarmoniche’ have disappeared from our own valley because of emigration from the villages and changing tastes and religious affiliations. Benabbio, for example, was once famous for its musicians whose instruments are now rusting away in a chest in Bagni di Lucca. Yet other ‘bande’ flourish despite all odds. Corsagna’s ‘Filarmonica’ is a prime example of this, lending shades of solemnity or fanciful joy at our Val di Lima’s village feste.

A fellow listener wrote to me after the performance  the thoughts that came into her mind. Here are some of them:

Dirge, cacophony, 50’s footage, parade, march, symphony, random sounds, drums, dissonance, purring, spanish, monster movie, elephants, torn paper, cool jazz guitar, swing, Wes Montgomery, traditional and experimental, crescendo….

With such a superlative performance, the likes of which we will never hear again (since every performance is a unique event unrepeatable because of its own self-gestating improvisations) it’s important to list here the main actors in this musical drama:

Composer Nicolao Valiensi
Installations by Keane and Fabrizio Da Prato

‘I Quaderni di Valdottavo’
Navacchio’s “Leopoldo Mugnone” Philharmonic band
Soloists of  “la piccola banda metafisica”
Tutt’i Soli theatre company

Centre de production artistique Teatro Colombo Valdottavo
Production Teatro Colombo Valdottavo and Leopoldo Space

The concert is included  in the series  ‘Traditions & Betrayal’ and is part of a project aimed at safeguarding the heritage of traditional music
Associazione Polifonia / Barga Jazz
Artistic direction by Alexssandro Rizzardi
The event has the support of the Ministry of Heritage, Culture and Tourism

Clarinets: Fabrizio Desideri, Federica Ceccherini, Lara Panicucci, Giovanni Vai
Bass clarinet: Rossano Emili
Flutes: Antonio Barsanti, Serena Panicucci, Andreina Crudeli
Trumpets: Nazzareno Brischetto, Federico Trufelli
Trombone: Silvio Bernardi
Bombardine: Angelo Marcello
Saxophones: Wardy Hamburg, Piero Bronzi, Maurizio Rossi
Tubas: Marco Fagioli, Matteo Muccini
Percussion: Giuseppe Sardina, Piero Orsi, Giuseppe D’Amato
Guitar: Claudio Riggio

Light design Marco Alba

Artwork Daniela Cacace

Here is a statement by the composer, Nicolao Valiensi, of his work’s intent:

‘In the imagination’s geometry, where the artist draws and sculpts his visions the notebook remains the starting point. From school to score notebooks the imaginative focus draws within the space-void that will be. The creative process still seems to need the hand’s ancient gesture: pencil, eraser, the notebook’s re-editing. It’s the notebook’s function to draw from artistic and educational sources: a collection of inventive and educational views in the name of a societal model where relationships between people play a decisive role. The exchange and flow of artistic material becomes the engine of this new architecture pivoting around the question of time, absolute values in societal evolution, in terms of a new order. A “Straw Revolution” a reversal of the concept of time is seen as an opportunity to get together, to forge the present. The Valdottavo Notebooks want to present themselves as a platform to provide a space for expression in the language of silence, little things, and minimal gestures in a world where the dictatorship of noises rules our daily routines.’

The concert was part of a programme of events called ‘Traditions & Betrayals’. The full programme is at  www.bargajazz.it

If you care about contemporary music don’t miss this series of concerts. They are truly immense feats of creativity and performance.

A Living Crib is Reborn at Equi Terme

Equi Terme’s living Christmas crib is one in which we have taken part several times as characters in this, one of the most spectacular of such events in Tuscany. Sometimes we have been the Roman governor of Caesarea, sometimes one of the three Magi and Sandra has been a cialdonaia (waffle-maker).

You can see some photographs of our appearances in this crib through the years in our posts at:

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/christmas-crib/

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/of-dragons-irises-and-knights/

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/no-room-at-the-inn-in-equi-terme/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/of-cribs-and-choirs/

In 2013 a strong earthquake shook Equi Terme and the surrounding area and for the next two years it was unable to hold the crib or ‘presepe’.

In 2015 the presepe was happily back in Equi Terme after temporary sites at Sarzana and Vezzano Ligure. The crib’s site is truly spectacular with the highest part of the Apuan Mountains behind it and with its giant cave where the actual nativity is held. Here are some scenes from it during our visit there a couple of days ago:

The costumes, unlike several other living cribs, are modelled on a biblical Palestine and there are few concessions to renaissance or mediaeval times.

The presepe takes place every evening between 6 and 9 pm from 24th to 27th December. Be prepared to queue. It’s becoming ever more popular! Although we weren’t characters this year we helped out and were able to avoid the queues and the modest entrance charge. There’s more information at tel 346-3619103, or e-mail: atsl@atsl.it. Maybe you’d like to become a part of this wonderful Christmas celebration?

Our visit on ‘il giorno di Santo Stefano’ (Boxing Day) was truly a journey down memory lane. We love this living crib more than any other, both for its extraordinary setting in which the old village of Equi Terme is transformed into a little Bethlehem and for the memories it holds for us of happy times staying in the house and company of La Signora Vinicia, the Lady of Equi Terme, now sadly no longer with us.

Happily our dear friend Giovanni Fascetti is still, as Mastro Cialdonaio (master waffle maker), able to play an essential part of the crib with his exquisite antique ferri (irons) used to make the delicious waffles.

The essential thing about Christmastide is its continuity through the years. Having friends that we know will be there adds to this continuity and gives security in these uncertain times.

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Our Christmas 2016

“Pasqua con chi vuoi ma Natale con i tuoi” is a familiar Italian adage meaning ‘spend Easter with whom you like but spend Christmas with your own.”

Our own are us two, our cats and ducks (and two goldfish to be on the complete side) and that’s the company we spent our Christmas with.

First we opened our presents (which are strictly either utilitarian or chocolaty).

Then Sandra set busy preparing Christmas lunch.

After the hors d’oevre which consisted of home-made bread crostini with salmon and liver pate a la fiorentina:

we plunged into scrumptious oven-baked lasagne:

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This was followed by quails and a variety of vegetables including fennel and mushrooms. Delicious!

We finished off with mince pie and cream.

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After a little festive rest after lunch we went for our traditional Christmas walk with two of our cats Carlotta and Cheeky. (Napoleon is over seventy cat years old so we made an allowance for him).

The evening finished with us watching the Moscow ballet production of the ‘Nutcracker’ as performed at Lucca’s Giglio Theatre (see my post on that at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/nuts-about-ballet-in-lucca/ )

The Christmas period in Italy has been so mild that it hardly seems winter at all – rather a harbinger of spring. I wonder if winter will really make itself felt later on, however…

 

Our Christmas Eve

How did we spend our Christmas Eve?

First we travelled over the pass from Benabbio through Boveglio past Colognora to Collodi and thence to San Gennaro where we visited the marzipan (mmmmm) crib in Palazzo Bocella done by the students of the management and catering school there.

Next door there was more to see in the wonderful Romanesque parish church including this exquisite sculpture of an angel by Leonardo da Vinci executed when he was still a pupil of Verrocchio. It’s Leonardo’s one surviving sculpture and was only identified as by the master at the end of the last century.

Remember the angels Leonardo painted for Christ’s baptism for his teacher Verrocchio and which you can see in Florence’s Uffizi?

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There are lots more to see in San Gennaro’s pieve including an ancient  wooden statue of San Gennaro himself:

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A beautiful pulpit:

And marvellous capitals on the columns.

Then back to Collodi with its literary associations and that giant Pinocchio on the way out.

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Then past ‘Caspita’, the Chinese shop by the roundabout at the end of Viale Europa, for some last minute shopping.

Then for an evening meal (it’s traditional in Italy to eat fish-based courses on Christmas Eve) at Da Pinzo in Ponte a Moriano. Our course included a delicious plate of farfalle with salmon:

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and bacalà (cod) with capers and potatoes:

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Then, leaving the car at Ponte a Moriano we climbed into the navetta (shuttle bus –‘ literally ‘little ship’) for Midnight Mass with the best music around at the Convento dell’Angelo once belonging to the Passionist fathers but now Maestro Kuhn’s Montegral singing finishing school.

This was the programme of the liturgy:

 

The convent has become our traditional Christmas Eve venue. For more on Montegral see my posts at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/12/25/its-christmas-day/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/12/25/reaching-the-holy-grail/

Then back home at around 3 am and a good sleep before Christmas day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Takes a Mass to Tango

Ever since the Missa Luba was first heard and recorded in the 1958 there has been a succession of world music masses. Among these the Missa Criolla (performed by Andrea Salvoni’s choir in Barga cathedral last year – see my post on it at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/06/27/a-choral-feast-at-barga/ ) stands out. I was, therefore, particularly keen to hear the Misa Tango, composed by contemporary Argentinian composer Martin Palmeri, at the convent church of San Francesco, Borgo a Mozzano last night.

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(Martin Palmeri)

The item formed part of the Christmas concert organized by the Stereotipi vocal group. I was lucky enough to participate as a member of the choir in one of these concerts in December 2012 when we sang (among other pieces) a Mass by Michael Haydn, Joseph’s brother.

This was the programme:

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The children’s choir (beautifully expressed in Italian as ‘voci bianche’ – white voices) sang a selection of Christmas songs with a grace far beyond that of the standard songs that children of that age are expected to perform in Italy (i.e. largely fatuous ‘pop’). It just shows how teachers Serena Salotti and Felicity Lucchesi have been able to get those of a young age to sing to a standard expected in such places as the typical English cathedral choir school.

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The fine Stereotipi choir – now expanded to a good dozen voices – followed with Faure’s exquisite ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’. As with the previous item, the balance between voice and piano, superbly played by Massimo Salotti (friend but no relation), was well-judged.

It may seem a strange mixture of sacred and profane to set a Latin Mass to tango rhythms but then tango is itself a form that has been raised to the highest level by such composers as Ginastera and Piazzolla. (See my post on the latter at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/07/02/tango-where-astor-piazzolla-originated-from/). After all, didn’t sublime musicians, like Bach and Mozart, raise dance music, such as gavottes, minuets and sarabandes, to the highest levels in their compositions?

The tango’s often acerbic harmonies and its infectious syncopations were fully captured by the ensemble accompanied by Massimo who truly understood the heart of the genre on the keyboard.

Apart from driving rhythms, often startling cluster chords and glissandi, full importance was given to Palmeri’s settings of the more reflective sections of the Mass, especially the ‘Benedictus and the ‘Dona Nobis pacem.’

It was most appropriate that this Argentinian Mass was performed in St Francis convent for, after all, isn’t the present pope also Argentinian and called Francis?

The Stereotipi had previously performed the Misa Tango in Livorno in the full arrangement for choir, soloists, and orchestra which should include that flexible South American tango instrument, the bandoneon. However, it was agreed that, just with a small choir doubling as soloists and a piano accompaniment, the essential impact of this extraordinarily infectious work was well-realised.

Again, for a free concert at Christmas time offered by the munificence of dedicated musicians, the church should have had a rather larger audience. However, those present fully appreciated the immense effort that had gone into the interpretation of yet another masterpiece of world music.

In a church attractively decorated with poinsettias, courtesy of Olesia Fiori ad Arte and with sponsorship from Borgo’s Misericordia, Valentina Brecevich did a fine job in presenting the evening and wished us all a Very Merry Christmas which, clearly I extend to all my readers!

Afterwards we met up with the dedicated musicians in the adjoining hall for a well-deserved rinfresco of prosecco and panettone – the Italian equivalent of other countries’ minced pies and mulled wine and even more delicious!

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The evening was truly a joyous one and we left the historic convent with lighter hearts and happier expectations! Well done to all those involved as performers and collaborators at this memorable evening!

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Assassins and Bandits are Lords where we Live

Ariosto is considered by many as second only to Dante in the hierarchy of great Italian poets. His epic poem ‘Orlando Furioso’ is one of the longest and most varied of any in western cultural history. Describing the great cycle of stories dating back to the battles between the Moorish invasion of Europe and the fight-back, by Charlemagne’s army, of chivalric paladins, ‘Orlando Furioso’ has been and continues to be one of the most influential of poems, inspiring writers like Cervantes (who somewhat parodied the genre in his fantastic‘Don Quixote’), composers like Vivaldi (who wrote two operatic versions based on the epic) and Handel (who introduced a most unusual quintuple time signature to depict Orlando’s madness – furioso means either furious or mad, madly in love that is)  to modern writers like Salman Rushdie who introduced elements of the story in his ‘The Enchantress of Florence’. Most recently, Ariosto has been the subject of an extraordinary exhibition by the artist Possenti at the Fortress of Mont’Alfonso.

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(Prof Marcello Cherubini introducing Prof Pietro Paolo Angelini at yesterday’s conference at Bagni di Lucca’s Chiesa Inglese)

It was, therefore, quite wonderful to welcome back to Bagni di Lucca’s Chiesa Inglese Pietro Paolo Angelini, a teacher, scholar and educational director from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana to introduce the presentation of his new book ‘Ludovico Ariosto Commissario Generale Estense in Garfagnana’ with its subtitle ‘di tutte queste montagne li assassini et omini di mala condizioni sono signori’ (throughout these mountains assassins and low-life men are considered as lords’)

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How did Italy’s second greatest poet finish up in a then Wild West area (some of whose traits certainly still exist today in remoter parts) to attempt to bring law and order in a bandit–infested territory? There are certain facts to be considered.

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(Ariosto’s portrait by Titian in London’s National Gallery)

First is that the Val di Serchio was divided up into a patchwork of territories belonging either to the Luccan Republic (e.g. Bagni di Lucca) or the duchy of Florence (e.g. Barga) or the Estense family from Ferrara – later Modena – (e.g. Castelnuovo di Garfagnana). These partitions provided ample space for wars and feuds but, most of all for bandits who avoided customs dues between the various parts through contraband or smuggling.

Second is the fact that Ariosto worked for Ippolito d’Este who was a mean ruler and didn’t pay the poet’s wages. When the chance came for a salaried job in the Garfagnana Ariosto took it of necessity. The pay, in fact came from the bandits themselves! There was a ‘special understanding between Lodovico and the banditti whereby each tolerated, and sometimes protected, the other – an amnesty in fact. The real scoundrels, according to Ariosto, were the priests who received harsh words (and suggested punishments too cruel to mention here) from the poet.

Third, Ariosto, coming from a princely court with its polite manners and seductive comforts, finding himself in a wild and lonely place with few sophisticated activities and, most importantly, far away from the woman he loved (and whom he secretly married just a few years before his death) Alessandra, became prone to depression and despair. Indeed, Orlando’s love-sick madness, can easily find a parallel in Ariosto’s own state of mind. Moreover, the battles between knights and monsters find a mirror in the conflicts between Governor Ariosto and the almost savage populace he had to bring under some sort of control.

Fourth, Ariosto transferred his unrequited love to the beautiful natural landscape around him. In his fourth satire he mentions the magnificent Pania Della Croce in these words (my translation): ‘the naked Pania between dawn and sunset turns me through her glory into her devotee’. This whole satire should be read for it gives a deep insight into Ariosto’s attitude to the area.

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(The Pania della Croce as seen from near Longoio)

The book is published by that most distinguished of publishers, Maria Pacini Fazzi of Lucca, and is available in Italian only (for the time being) at price twenty euros.

I consider Angelini to be a sort of modern Ariosto. I had my first job as teacher of English at Castelnuovo’s Ipsia (technical college) which was headed by Pietro Paolo. I took my first class under the illusion that country lads would have been tamer than inner London street-wise kids. I was quickly put right and realised that I would have to use all my enthusiasm and interest-keeping tactics to keep a somewhat undisciplined class in some order. These tactics were developed to the full by the great Angelini in his directorship of Garfagnana’s schools and colleges. In his gripping book, I was flattered that this whole-hearted man still remembered me after almost ten years. Pietro Paolo’s dedication to me and Alexandra  was, therefore, particularly touching.

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I also realised that John Harington, an old boy from my university (King’s College, Cambridge), was, at the end of the sixteenth century, England’s first translator of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’; (John also invented the world’s first flush toilet, incidentally, and lived in a house in one of my first work places in London – the former Wages Inspectorate in Red Lion Square).

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(First English Translator of ‘Orlando Furioso’, Sir John Harington, King’s Cambridge)

There is also a close connection between two of Bagni di Lucca’s most distinguished visiting poets, Shelley and Byron, and Ariosto. Shelley read Ariosto while he was here and Byron’s style was closely influenced by Ariosto, to say nothing of at least two plots (‘Much Ado about Nothing’ and The Taming of the Shrew’)

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(The original for ‘The Taming of the Shrew’)

that Shakespeare swiped from Ludovico Ariosto in this, Shakespeare’s four hundredth death anniversary and Ariosto’s five hundredth anniversary of his ‘Orlando Furioso’.

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(Pietro Paolo Angelini yesterday)

Angelini spoke yesterday with lively vigour and truly reawakened our interest in this poet who recently has been restored to his rightful place after some years of neglect.  I am, therefore, truly grateful to the Fondazione Montaigne for having invited him to talk so fervently and captivatingly about Ariosto. I’m off now to re-read the adventures of Orlando, Angelica, Bradamante and Ruggiero, Alcina and Ariodante (two further Handel operas, incidentally!)

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(Ruggiero saving Angelica from the Monster by Paul-Joseph-Blanc)