The Summer Festival celebrates its twenty years of uninterrupted activity, thanks to its patron Mimmo D’Alessandro who presents the world’s finest stars in the splendid setting of Lucca’s Piazza Napoleone.

Robbie Williams, fresh from the Brits Icon Award, will appear on July 15 at Lucca’s Summer Festival with his new highly anticipated European tour, which will start on June 2 from Manchester.

It’s also a welcome return to Piazza Napoleone’s stage after Robbie’s appearance in 2015 to a full house. In a square crowded with fans from all over the world. Erasure will open this new show as special guests celebrating thirty years together.

Tickets on sale at http://www.dalessandroegalli.com and www.ticketone.it

We greatly enjoyed Robbie Williams’ appearance during the 2015 Lucca summer festival. For our write-up of the situation see








Cosmic Road Maps at the Casinò

A mandala is a two or three dimensional representation of a cosmic universe. It is, in effect, a road map of spiritual dimensions. As such, mandalas have been used in some of the world’s great religions as aids to meditation and spiritual exploration. Tibetan mandalas are well-known, especially the technique of creating them out of sand only for the painstaking work to be destroyed as soon as it is finished – thus representing life’s transience and the vanity of human conceptions.

We enjoyed seeing kolams drawn anew every morning at the threshold of villagers’ houses during our visit to Tamilnadu last month and Sandra took photographs of several of them:

Kolams (known as rangoli in other parts of India) are believed to bring good luck and prosperity to homes. They are also drawn in temples when supplicant’s vows have been fulfilled. Kolams are drawn with white rice powder and often coloured in. By the end of the day kolams may have been washed out by the rain or blown away by the wind so the following morning new ones are drawn. The Tamilnadu kolam, therefore, has a purpose similar to the mandala – that of a connection to another, heavenly universe. It also shares a comparable quality with the mandala, that of symmetry and precision. Radial balance can also be an important feature of kolams and mandalas – that of considering them as cosmic cakes divided usually into four or six slices and where each slice is identically related to the other.

I would also add that mandalas spread into western religion. What else are those marvellous rose windows seen in gothic cathedrals but celestial glass representations of a godly universe?

(North Rose window at Chartres Cathedral)

Morena Guarnaschelli held a class in creating mandalas yesterday at 5 pm at Ponte a Serraglio’s casinò as part of the events celebrating International women’s day ‘Omaggio alla Donna’. The class was very well-attended with a wide age-range including children. Morena’s explanations of what a mandala is and how to create one were exemplary:

Morena emphasised the fact that a mandala should be a journey into one’s own psyche and that spontaneity and fluidity are paramount in its creation. Soon a silence of concentration descended onto the participants as they started their own mandalas.

Andrea, a practitioner of Chinese tuina manipulative therapy, who has a shop at Ponte a Serraglio also participated by giving us an insightful introduction into the significance of dreams, Chinese medicine and numerology.

Our mandala activity was resumed after a welcome buffet supper which included a very good chocolate cake decorated with mimosa, the emblem flower for International Women’s day:

By the end of the evening the results were often quite special.

As a non-artist used only painting walls and window frames I began to get quite involved in the creation of my own mandala. I don’t know what it says of me. All I can note is that without Morena’s excellent class I would not have achieved much.

(My own humble effort)




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:





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.



Your Path to the Paradise Garden

Today’s the last day you’ll be able to visit this year’s Lucca’s ‘Murabilia’ garden festival. It’s open from 9.30 am to 6.30 pm and is quite unmissable if you happen to love flowers and gardening and, of course, if you happen to be in Lucca too!

Together with springtime’s ‘Verdemura’ it is one of the two premier Lucchesi events dealing with horticulture and gardening. ‘Murabilia’ takes place on the ramparts and bulwarks on the south side of the city near the station and ‘Verdemura’ takes place on the northern walls close to where one enters into the city from Bagni di Lucca.

Both locations are superb with wonderful views over the Lucchesia and the opportunity to explore the underground passages of the city walls where several interesting exhibitions take place.

This year’s Murabilia theme is ‘seeds, the origin of life’ and the entry ticket (7 euros but only 3 for under fourteens and over sixty-fives.) includes admission to many interesting talks and shows. Full details are at the event’s web site at www.murabilia.com

There are flowers, seeds and bulbs to buy to suit all tastes:

Murabilia is not just about flowers although it’s possible to come back with cartloads of varieties as special trolleys are provided. Garden machinery and craft stalls abound and there are also competitions.

As an added bonus entry to the botanical gardens is free. For the festival, appropriately, there’s an exhibition showing how seed collection became a mania in the eighteenth century, particularly with such luminaries as Sir Joseph Banks who did so much to establish London’s Kew gardens as one of the world’s major seed banks.

I was quite attracted to the stall set up by secondary school children demonstrating how to make polyhedrons (structures fundamental to nature). They clearly had a very good maths teacher and I managed to make my own seven-pointed star.

‘Let Nature be your teacher’ as Billy Wordsworth so acurately wrote!


Seven Last Words in Barga

The Seven Last Words uttered by Jesus Christ on the Cross have long been the subject for meditation, theological discussion and liturgical ceremony. It was precisely for this last occasion that Joseph Haydn was asked by Don José Sáenz de Santa María from Cadiz to write a work to be performed during the Good Friday service at his Church of the Cave in 1783.

Haydn admitted that the commission was not going to be an easy task. In his words:

Some fifteen years ago I was requested by a canon of Cádiz to compose instrumental music on the Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross. It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits.

What Haydn produced has certainly never fatigued listeners since. Indeed, it became one of his most popular works and from the original instrumental version spawned an arrangement for string quartet in 1787 and even an oratorio version in 1795. Haydn also sanctioned a popular piano arrangement.

For the second evening of the Barga Festival I was privileged to hear the string quartet version played by members of Le Musiche, most appropriately in the church ‘del Santissimo Crocifisso’, a building with the most exquisitely carved woodwork by Santini which I described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/wholly-santinis/

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The performance was incisively dramatic – I never imagined that a succession of seven slow movements could be so intense and passionate. It was more so since we sat on the first bench directly facing the performers and were, thus, literally embraced by this music of powerful sadness.

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Adding to the drama was the recitation between the movements (in Italian with no. 4 in Aramaic) of the Seven Last Words by the son of Barga Opera festival director, Nicholas Hunt.

Here is an excerpt from the performance:

What are Christ’s seven last words anyway? Actually they are phrases rather than words and are taken from the four Gospels. Seven is, of course, the perfect number: God rested on the seventh day and the Bible is saturated with reference to the number seven – for example, the opening of the seven seals in the Book of Revelation…

Here are the utterances, together with their traditional significance:

  1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. (Forgiveness).
  2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Salvation).
  3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother. (Relationship with family)
  4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Abandonment)
  5. John 19:28: I thirst. (Distress)
  6. John 19:30: It is finished (or accomplished).  (Triumph)
  7. Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. (Reunion)


I feel that these seven sayings could so often be applied to our lives for, after all we are said to be made in the image of God. How many times do we feel abandoned or distressed, for example? I’m quite sure that Haydn’s marvellous fusion of his intense devotion to God, (he usually began composing a new work with the words  “in nomine Domini” – “in the name of the Lord” – and finished it with “Laus Deo” – “praise be to God”) and his real devotion to raising the consciousness of his fellow men through music which gives both pleasure and reflection is the reason why these ‘Seven Last Words’ made such an impression on me and the rest of the audience. This included Maestro Frederico Sardelli whose talents, apart from divinely conducting many of Opera Barga’s productions, includes composition, flute-playing, author (his first novel based on Vivaldi’s lost manuscripts was published last year) graphic artists and last, but not least, cartoonist for that Italian equivalent of ‘Private Eye’ and ‘Monty Python’: ‘Il Vernacoliere.’


If you’re interested in the other arrangements of Haydn’s very affecting work here they are:

There’s a wonderfully atmospheric recording by Jordi Savall of the original orchestral version  recorded in the very chapel for which it was composed at:

For the oratorio version see:

I find this version particularly effective as the actual sayings are sung a Capella before the choir and soloists come in accompanied by the orchestra.

For the piano version approved by Haydn see:

It’s also worthy of note that, like other religious texts such as the ‘Stabat Mater’ and the Mass itself, many other composers have set the Seven Last Words to music: from Lassus in the 16th century to Pergolesi in the 18th to César Franck in the 19th to James Macmillan in the 20th century.

I just wonder what our own seven last words will be…….

Felicitious Beginning to Barga’s Fabulous Festival 2016

Festival Opera Barga this year may be like being at a banquet without the main course but yesterday evening the hors’ d’oevre, the contorno and, especially the dessert, were absolutely delicious at the inauguration of this doyen of the city’s events which this year celebrates its half-century.

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Opera Barga was founded in 1967 by Peter Hunt and Gillian Armitage with Peter Gellhorn as the musical director. For many of us it has been the prime magnet for staying and appreciating the area and, indeed, in 2005, my first night out in Barga was to attend Vivaldi’s Motezuma (in a pasticcio version –  see my posts at   https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/08/12/fishy-evenings-at-barga/ and https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/barga-opera-nights/ for more on that intrigue worthy of the most devious of operatic plots.)

Nicholas Hunt, the founder’s son, with Giancarlo Morganti, and Massimo Fino’s musical direction, have carried on the fine work of bringing little-known baroque opera (especially Vivaldi) to the stage so it was truly a disappointment when this year financial constraints prevented an opera from being staged.

No matter: the festival got off to a really good start in the courtyard of the ex-convent of Santa Elisabetta.

This was the programme.


Unlike the official announcement of a performance of two Mozart violin concerti, and unlike the actual programme itself, the items were in fact performed in this order.

First, the Mendelssohn string quintet no 1, composed when the composer was sixteen and at the height of his prodigal powers with his miraculous octet created just the previous year. Truly, Mendelssohn’s chamber music is among the best stuff he ever committed to manuscript paper.

Second, was the encore, the delicious first movement of Brahms’ sextet no 1.

The encore was eccentrically placed (‘nuova regolazione’ uttered Nick Hunt in jest), before the final piece, which was Mozart’s third violin concerto with three of the string group imitating the horn, flute and oboe parts with highly satisfactory results. Simone Bernardini showed himself to be fully sensitive to the varying moods of this attractive concerto which range from the jocose to the intensely cantabile to the French contredans embedded in its last rondo (although Bernardini’s playing of Mozart wasn’t completely able to subdue the complaints about the heat from one of the elderly inhabitants on the floor above the cloister – Sant’Elisabetta is both a conservatoire and a home ‘per gli anziani’).

‘Le Musiche’ is a group of young musicians, several meeting for the first time but who perform almost as if they had been together for some time. The empathy of communication between them was both sensed and seen and I felt that that start of the Barga (opera) festival could not have started more promisingly with such exquisite chamber music played by so talented group as ‘Le Musiche.’

After a well-needed rinfresco (it was humid and hot) in the garden of the Barga cathedral bell-ringers association we ascended into the cathedral where further musical delights awaited us.

If not a Vivaldi opera why not a Vivaldi religious work? What the red priest wrote for the church has all the vigour of his operatic works plus the added bonus of some really fine choruses.

The Magnificat was the original of three further versions Vivaldi wrote based on it.  The fine ensemble consisting of the Coro Ricercare and the Orchestra Academia degli Invaghiti (= infatuated, with music of course, although, no doubt, there may have been infatuations of a more personal nature between some of the performers…) did us proud while Barga’s photographer and reporter, who brings the world to this most exquisite place, took up a position on the elaborate pulpit.


The centrepiece of this magnificent ‘Magnificat’ is undoubtedly the “et misericordia ejus” but all the movements have something special to offer, particuaròy the ‘Deposuit potentes’ where the cellos and the double bass were growling menacingly as if to express sentiments that are even more relevant today when the cultivated middle class is suffering ever more under crass potentates.

I remember playing violin in Vivaldi’s Gloria RV 589 in my school orchestra for a Christmas concert. Until that time Vivaldi meant little more than the Four Seasons and I loved the new insight this work (only rediscovered in 1939 by Casella) gave to the composer’s output.

The opening chorus accompaniment was played at a cracking pace. Too fast, I thought at first, but when the chorus came in I knew that Sardelli (yes he’d come back to Barga, the scene of many of his Vivaldi opera triumphs) had got it just right.  His vigorous conducting continued through the following movements: from the elegiac ‘Et in terra pax’ (how much we need that now!) to the sprightly ‘Laudamus te, all the way to the final ‘Cum Sancti Spirito’ conventionally cast as a giant fugue, largely readapted from his predecessor’s Giovanni Maria Ruggeri’s own ‘Gloria’.  Homage rather than plagiarism, I feel in this case.

What a great start to the Barga festival! We almost forgot about the non-opera since so much of the music was indeed operatically dramatic and so gloriously sung. Of soloists I particularly enjoyed contralto Anna Bessi’s singing, although all soloists (drawn from the choir) sang their parts wonderfully, defeating the often cavernous acoustics of Barga’s Romanesque cathedral.

There’s lots more great music to follow at the festival.

Here’s the programme:

How about meeting up tonight, for example, for Haydn’s poignant setting of the Seven Last Words of Christ composed for Cadiz’ Holy Cave Oratory with Barga Festival director Nicholas Hunt reciting those last words.

Whatever may be there will be no last words to describe Barga’s superb festival. I’m quite sure that Opera will return with a vengeance to it next year!

Superlative Spectacle at Gallicano’s Palio di San Jacopo

The Palio di San Jacopo, Gallicano’s patron saint, always occurs on 25th July every year. This extraordinary event, where allegorical floats are preceded by fantastically costumed participants enacting complex choreographies, has been going since 1972 and, apart from a few instances when it was cancelled, has been growing from strength to strength. This year the Palio was exceptionally fabulous and anyone who missed it truly missed a great deal.

Like other Italian palii there is a competition between various rioni to compete for the prize. Gallicano has three rioni today (there used to be four). They are Borgo Antico, Monticello and Bufali.

Each year a new theme is given to the three rioni. This year it was ‘The Power of the Sun’. The prize of the palio is a special coloured cloth called ‘il cencio’.

What is so incredible is the wonderful creativity and imagination a small town like Gallicano in the middle of a remote valley can muster for its Palio. Everyone has a chance to contribute with their skills, no matter what age. For a whole year before the actual palio (and especially during the long winters) ideas are thrashed out, designs produced, costumes made. There’s sewing, cutting, pasting with every conceivable material available. Floats are meticulously built up and mechanized in a special warehouse dedicated to the palio. It’s a sort of mountain version of Viareggio but with a greater emphasis on spectacle and with universal world themes rather than sometimes heavy political satire.

The sheer love and resourcefulness put into the Gallicano palio is quite extraordinary and demonstrates fully the ability of Italians to get together, lay aside differences and produce something which I truly feel is of an international standard and equals some of the best shows of the world’s capital cities.

After a procession of the floats through Gallicano’s narrow streets the event takes place in the natural arena below the church.

The first rione to present its spectacle was IL Borgo Antico with a subtitle ‘Multiverso’.

The second was Monticelli with the subtitle ‘the biggest show after the Big Bang.’

The third was Bufali with ‘the legend of Garfagnana’s birth’.

I thought Bufali would have won but instead it was the Borgo antico. Here are the jury’s decision based on these criteria:




PUNTEGGIO FINALE: (Final points)

After the wonderful spectacles presented by Gallicano’s three rioni, (frankly, I thought they should all have first prize!) we were treated to a splendid fireworks display. I ascended to the old church of San Jacopo in front of which the fireworks were to be set off.  The launching pad was only a few metres away – I’d never been so close to seeing rockets actually taking off!

It was quite awesome but also very noisy and a little terrifying! I thought that if this was great fun for us for others in less peaceful parts of the world it was, sadly, a spectacle they had to witness every day under the name of bombardments and death.

The sun is life, however, and Gallicano and its inhabitants did themselves proud that evening with one of the very best of its Palii I’ve ever seen.  It was an absolute treat for all those three thousand+plus lucky enough to have been there and was fully written up in the region’s papers giving Gallicano well-deserved publicity for a comune which not so long ago was dying on its feet but is now a model example of enterprise and strong future vision.

Old Crafts at Colognora

It’s the high season in our part of the world for ‘feste’, ‘sagre’ and ‘palii’. There’s one of these happening somewhere practically every day here. If one’s diary is well-organised then there’s no excuse for not dressing up and going out in the afternoon or evening to have a really good time eating, enjoying and generally people-watching.

Just in case you were confused about the terminology a ’festa’ is a festival based on a particular theme. It’s normally a mediaeval festa, although renaissance-style feste do occur and also ones based on local traditional themes (‘festa paesana’). Food is ok here but the real splendours are the costumes and the activities displayed. A ‘sagra’, on the other hand, has food as its main theme. It could be a Sagra ai rigatoni (a type of pasta in the shape of tubes with lines on the outside – and don’t tell me that all pasta tastes the same no matter what shape they are!), del maiale (pig) and one of my favourites, the sagra delle crisciolette which runs on 29-30-31 July and 5-6-7 August 2016 at Cascio di Molazzana.

You can only eat crisciolette at Cascio incidentally – you certainly won’t find them in Tesco’s. They’re toasted pancakes using maize and wheat flour and eaten with a sort of local bacon or cow’s cheese. Delicious!


There’s a very decent web site at http://www.sagretoscane.com/sagre/ which will direct you to your favourite food sagra. As yet I have not yet found sagre of pork pies and pasties although, as anyone whose stayed here for some time, there’s an excellent sagra di Pesce e patate, which authentically translates as ‘Fish n’ chips festival’, at Barga, which will be on from 27th July to 17th August this year. I definitely never miss that one: Britain’s culinary gift to the world tastes so much better with lovely sunshine, plenty of company on long tables, a dramatic Apuan alp backdrop and some nice local red wine!

Sagre are accompanied by ‘ballo liscio’ (dancing from waltz to rumba), singers and stalls. They are truly the place to eat well, convivially and cheaply.

The ’Palio’ is a competition between the rioni (districts) of a particular town. Of course, the Palio di Siena is world-famous but there are so many more in Italy that’s its quite unbelievable. A Palio is generally divided into a costumed presentation and a sports event. I went to the Palio di Gallicano last night and the standard was unbelievably high – it was truly mesmeric. More of that one in my next post, however!

Food isn’t a significant feature at a Palio although crowd participation certainly is! There are stalls but they are usually overpriced and it’s best to eat elsewhere before attending these supremely Italian events. Again, there’s an excellent web site on Palii in Tuscany at http://www.ilpalio.org/toscana.htm

The big feature of the sagra, festa and palio is the ability of local Italian communities to organise themselves in such an amicable, creative and vibrant way. It’s truly something their government could learn from!

Colognora is one of the most beautiful villages in our area. Situated in the comune di Pescaglia its ancient streets are filled with some noble palazzi and the atmosphere is very picturesque.

Colognora is famous for at least four main things. It’s the home of the fascinating Chestnut Museum which evokes times past when chestnut flour made the ‘bread of the poor’ and helped the population survive through the hardest of times (like World War two).

It’s also the home of one of Italy’s greatest (and most neglected) operatic composers, Alfredo Catalani, whose o-so tragic life I’ve described in my post at: https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/catalanis-calamitous-life/

It’s also famous for being the setting scene of Spike Lee’s film “Miracle at St Anna”. Fourthly Colognora has a very attractive local crafts festa where traditional skill like wood-carving, iron-forging, needlework, plaster statuette moulding, miniature stone house making (for Christmas cribs), basket making, broom manufacture are displayed.

Near the top of Colognora stands the very beautiful church of San Michele e San Caterina which contains some lovely altars and a fine organ. I especially liked the fresco of the Last Supper with a well-fed dog hiding under the table.

The church has some beautiful stained glass windows representing the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude) designed by Giovanni Lorenzetti and carried out by Lorenzo Marchetti. They were inaugurated in 2010 and are absolutely beautiful.

I think that if the world’s human inhabitants abided by the four cardinal virtues they could make it such a better place!

Here is a selection of the activities and street scenes I saw when visiting Colognora last Sunday 24th July:

Catalani’s modest house now has a plaque affixed to it. I’m not sure that the sculpture is entirely appropriate. It makes poor Alfredo look somewhat brutalist. He was, in fact one of the most sensitive of Italian composers and persons. There are plans to make the house into a museum when funds permit.

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I was, therefore, very pleased to visit the recently opened Sala Catalani at the chestnut museum. The well-arranged room contains original letters written by the composer in his small, faint script, photographs of him and his family, a Catalani family tree and plenty more.

But the best thing there is La Divina Maria Callas’ dress which she wore for a lead performance in Catalani’s opera. What a treasure!

There were also mementoes of Mario Del Monaco who loved singing the composers’ works and linked him with the Del Monaco exhibition we visited at the Teatro di Vetriano earlier this year. (For more information on Vetriano theatre and the great Mario see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/05/07/the-smallest-theatres-biggest-programme/ ).

What a valley for music Pescaglia is! Puccini’s family lived just a couple of villages away at Celle. Extraordinary. But then are also certain Welsh valleys special for music..

It was such a lovely afternoon at Colognora. Crowds were considerable but not overbearing and I could see everyone was having a good time, especially me!

A Choral Feast At Barga

The choral concert at Barga’s Duomo di San Cristoforo last Friday at 9.00 pm was organised by the Istituto Superiore d’Istruzione di Barga to raise funds for Amnesty International and was, thankfully, very well attended.

Four local choirs participated – each one very different in style and repertoire.

This was the programme.

Roberta Popolani directed the choir of Barga cathedral in six pieces of both a liturgical and folkloric character. The highlight of their performance was, in my opinion the contribution of the teenage clarinet player, Giorgio dell’Immagine who, true to his surname, produced an imaginative arrangement of Madre io vorrei which included, apart from his limpid playing, three flutes (one of which was a bass flute) and the charmingly effective contribution of two girls who might have just come out of their nursery class. (But then bedtime for Italian children are rather more flexible than those in anglo-saxon parts).

06252016 035A personal friend, Andrea Salvoni, still in his twenties and already a formidable choirmaster (he conducts our own choir at Ghivizzano,) has achieved a miracle of choral ensemble with the pupils of the Barga’s ISI (Institute of higher education) where he teaches.

The ISI choir rendering of John Rutter’s ‘The Lord bless you and keep you’ (blessing of Saint Francis) had the words enunciated very clearly (there must be a good English language coach at ISI) and the blending of the voices was perfect.

The same qualities permeated the other items but the choir’s biggest hit was the Gloria from the Misa Criolla which truly exploded with all its slightly melancholic brilliance into the farthest recesses of the somewhat cavernous Barga Cathedral acoustics. Nicola Soldani on percussion, Gioele Tomei on guitar with Niccolò Giambastiani and Andrea Salvoni on keyboards fully integrated themselves into the choral sound. For me the star was an extraordinary ISI student soloist, Caterina Pieretti whose voice was filled with both emotional strength and an extraordinary sound range.

Here is an excerpt from the Misa:

Argentinian Ariel Ramirez’ Misa was probably the first alternative mass to hit the Roman Catholic  liturgical scene after the Vatican council II reforms and its first performance in 1964 must have had an amazing impact which it has never lost to this day. Based on native folk rhythms and melodies, such as the chacarera and the carnavalito, the Misa established Ramirez’ reputation although it must be remembered that he wrote over three hundred other highly regarded compositions. It’s a pity that Ramirez died only in 2010 for he would surely have relished this Italian take on his fabulous Misa.


(Ariel Ramirez)

We entered into the realms of high renaissance polyphony with Gallicano’s own maestro-priest Don Fiorenzo Toti, an acknowledged authority on that great period of choral music which produced such geniuses as Victoria, Lassus and Palestrina.

I love Don Toti’s conducting style which is precise but authoritatively relaxed.His choir, culled from the mountains around Gallicano, must surely have some of the finest polyphonic singers in the Lucchesia and the final Bach chorale was simply gloriously sung

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The Joyful Angels Lucca Gospel choir needs no introduction to anyone who lives in our area. Its repertoire can be both thrilling and moving, truly infecting the audience with their appellation. Andrea was for a time an excellent pianist with the choir but pressures of work (and the foundation of his own ISI choir) forced him to give way to another accompanist, Ivan Magnelli who is clearly filled with a very natural jazz-blues soul and who accompanied magnificently with almost breathtaking virtuosity. He must have some of the fastest fingers in the whole Serchio Valley.

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After the highly pleasurable choral concert we were invited to the nearby conservatoire – formerly nunnery of Saint Elisabetta – where under the warm night of stars and the sound of cicadas we were treated to a rinfresco with the most wonderful variety of cakes I have tasted for a long time. It was truly a culinary midnight feast to cap the musical one we had been treated to.

A million thanks are due to the organizers and especially to Don Stefano Serafini the Duomo’s Don (and an ex-English language student of mine) for providing the environment for this superb night. I’m sure a goodly amount of funds were collected for Amnesty International, too.

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(Don Stefano Serafini, Barga’s Deputy Mayor Caterina Campani and Maestro Andrea Salvoni)

A Walk on the Wild Side

Fire-walking is one of mankind’s most ancient ceremonies. Throughout the world, from Southern India, Malaysia to Africa and the Americas this prestigious rite serves a variety of purposes. Firstly, it is an initiation act from one state of being to another higher level. From pre-puberty to manhood (or even womanhood in places like Sri Lanka) it is a public manifestation of one’s ability to face new challenges in life. It may be interpreted as a trial of one’s own integrity or as a demonstration of one’s faith.

There are many areas on this planet where one may observe this noble act of self-determination. I have observed it on Mount Girnar in Gujarat when Sadhus and Fakirs came out of their caves on Shivraatri and, completely naked, walk across glowing embers laid out before them.

In Bali there’s the Sanghyang Dedari festival where little girls become possessed by beneficent sprites (we would call them their guardian angels) and perform a fire-walk. If you find yourself in Fiji among the Sawau clan you’ll be able to observe the same kind of ceremony. In Cephalonia there’s a fire-walking variant called the Anastebaria festival.
Sometimes fire-walking serves a judicial purpose. To tread across the flaming embers without scorching the soles of one’s feet will prove further evidence of one’s innocence in a crime. Trial by ordeal, in fact.

In Europe, Spain and Italy are suitable places to observe or even take part in fire-walking rituals. Indeed, I didn’t have to go far to take part in a fire-walking ceremony in our area.

The Prato Fiorito is the haunt of spirits from time immemorial. There is a constant battle between good and evil, between white and black witches. Part of the fight against the destructive forces of malevolence and anomie is to perform a fire-walking ceremony in defiance of wicked forces on the slopes of this mountain which so majestically overlooks Bagni di Lucca.

The mayor of Lucca, transformed into a Shaman, presided over the ceremony. From the afternoon courses in being able to face the too-often destructive powers of the element of fire were held by Massimo Betti who is incredibly well-versed in ancient folklore and traditional medicinal knowledge.


Unfortunately, I was unaware of the course and traditional health and safety regulations prevented me from actually placing my bare soles on the glowing embers.
However, I was able to witness the propitiation of the Mother Goddess through the passing of young (preferably virgin) girls and boys across a ten by three foot channel of heated embers.

As each sacrificial acolyte stood before the element of fire a hypnotic cry of eiiio eiiio was chanted by those present. The longest day was arriving, made longer by the light of the flames of bonfires and the red-hot embers: a true manifestation of the Celtic festival of Litha. Balancing the shortest day of the Yule festival, Litha celebrates light and life itself. The sun god reaches his maximum strength reflected in the fire walk.

The setting of the ceremony was awesome. Although it had now become quite dark one could still trace the huge dinosaurian silhouettes of the Monte Prato Fiorito and the Monte Incoronata. A presence of something greater than we knew permeated the upland and the forest and we felt safe from the disintegrating influence of the covens of witches for which this area is so notoriously known.

Christianity, with its characteristic syncretisim has converted this pagan festival where the god Pan with horns and cloven feet becomes transformed into St John the Baptist, in his attire another sylvan figure living on wild honey and making way for someone greater than him.

Mussorgsky’s terrific opening of his piece ‘A Night on the Bare Mountain’ composed for the very occasion for the night of Saint John came to my mind’s ears. This truly fearsome piece of music (especially in the unadulterated non-Rimsky Korsakov tarted up version) seemed to me to be a faithful re-evocation of what I felt that night on the bare mountain of the Prato Fiorito.