An experience of a lifetime: Tuscan Musical Landscapes

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1 An experience of a lifetime: Tuscan Musical Landscapes Page 1 of 8 August 19, 2016*: For weeks now I have been wondering what a concert series in Tuscany might be like? I ve been intrigued by its title: Musical Landscapes in Tuscany or Tuscan Musical Landscapes (officially titled Paesaggi Musicali Toscani, Well some hints of what I might experience began to emerge as we left the major highway from Rome to Florence and began climbing the hills and negotiating the curving lanes of the rural Tuscan hills. Hilltop cities that we could see in the distance from the highway now were revealed in their umber and earthen-gold brickwork topped with earth-toned, tiled roofs. The graceful, rolling hills, too, emerged more textured and rich, giving evidence of the fertility of the landscape now experiencing post-harvest preparations. Distant mountains, quite massive hills really, were green with trees and somewhat shrouded in the hot afternoon haze. Still, they provided a wonderful back drop for the evidently rich farmland dotted with hay fields, orchards, vineyards, swathes of sunflowers, and a variety of crops that would need closer observation to identify. This patchwork of fields and the winding roads that cut through them are often lined with remarkably wellplaced borders of cypress - rich, green, and quite graceful outlines of the human presence that has nurtured the Tuscan hills for millennia. The overall sense of the landscape is serenity, harmony, and stewardship; the human presence is a complement to the land. When (on the evening of Thursday August 18, 2016), we reach our destination, San Quirico d Orcia, we found a charming hill-top city with a protective wall, cobblestone streets and a beautiful church at its highest point (409 meters, ~1341 ft.). The church, known as the Chiesa Collegiata, was the venue for the opening performance of this year s concert series. This is a beautiful building, with roots dating back to the 8 th century and a major construction beginning in the late 12 th century. This church proved to be the perfect landscape for the evening s all Bach program, featuring violins, viola, violoncello, contrabass, harpsichord, and in the finale, Suite No. 2 in C minor [BWV 1067], the flauto dolce ( a recorder for me, the non-musician). Though not a musician, I have always loved J. S. Bach s music at one time I owned his complete works on CD (another story) in fact I love almost all chamber music perhaps because of its intimacy with the audience and the ability to experience the incredible collaboration amongst the musicians. This performance, with its truly remarkable performers, proved to be the most exquisite, moving, powerful, and enjoyable evening of Bach I have ever experienced. I said at the conclusion, for the first time I know and feel what Bach really composed. The enthusiasm of the other, perhaps 150 guests, re-enforced my sense of having experienced something truly wonderful.

2 Page 2 of 8 So why am I sharing this all with you the members of the WUSF public media family? Simply put, you enabled me and my dear friend Barbara to have this amazing experience. My name is Greg and I had the good fortune to have my name drawn from among the contributors to last spring s fund raising event for WSMR. So, if you have wondered Does anyone actually win one of those promotional prizes? the answer is yes. I feel exceptionally fortunate to have been selected and am also grateful that Barbara agreed to join me on this trip of a lifetime. Officially the prize covered round-trip travel to Tuscany, B and B accommodations during, and tickets for the 11-day concert series. We opted to extend our stay, coming into Rome three days ahead and will add a few days after the concert to tour a bit more. While I found Rome to be amazing in terms of experiencing history, architectural achievement, and some of the world s most beautiful art, it is a very big, challenging city and 2 ½ days of enthusiastic touring left me a bit foot-sore (for you FitBit enthusiasts we chalked up something in the vicinity of 75,000 steps while in Rome Monday afternoon through Thursday morning), exhausted, and yearning for more natural, humanscale environs. Tuscany has more than fit the bill. The Italian people, Roman or Tuscan, have been a consistent delight friendly, forgiving, and patiently helpful in trying to overcome my ineptness with the language and the local customs. We hope to fill some of the days ahead with selected side trips from San Quirico to other famous hill towns, some close-by such as Pienza, Montalcino, and Montepulciano; some farther afield including San Gimignano and Sienna. More to come!!! August 20, 2016*: Let me begin with a few words about our beautiful accommodations here in San Quirico d Orcia. We are at the Antica Sosta (roughly ancient stopover ), a little introduction is available at What can t be found on the website is the generosity and hospitality of the innkeeper, Clarissa. She is a delight. The restored and updated interior is beautiful, tasteful, and wellappointed for the guest. The morning meal is quite sumptuous and delicious, served with marvelous Italian flair. All and all a wonderful choice. There is so much to share in each day: the wonderful restaurants and delightful meals; the quaint alleys that reflect the nestled architecture of ancient hilltowns; the sweeping vistas revealed when one scales the protective walls; and much more. Mostly, I will

3 Page 3 of 8 focus on the concert series and only briefly speak of the locations. After another full day however, I will just say buonanotte! August 21, 2016*: Buongiorno! We have begun to find our way around the San Quirico: parks, churches, COOP markets, banks, and laundromat have all been visited. All within walking distance, how nice! The concerts for the last two evenings have been held in remarkable locales within about 5 km of San Quirico. Both locations: Bagno Vignoni and Rocca d Orcia are amazing, I encourage an internet search which will reveal history and spectacular pictures. The music too was spectacular. On Friday, August 19, we experienced the music of Farias Patagonia in an outdoor setting at the baths. The Misa Criolla of 20 th /21 st century composer Ariel Ramirez was musically passionate, dynamic and delightful. The brothers Farias are Argentinian musicians who have become very well known and regarded in Italy for good reason I assure you. The brothers sung in Spanish with guitar, mandolin, pipes, accordion, and subtle and highly varied percussive accompaniment. Their wonderful voices and high energy charmed and engaged the audience. Their instrumental virtuosity, too, elicited much praise and comment. The following evening August 20, we were perched on the very steep and dramatic Rocca d Orcia in a church, San Simeone that was consecrated over 500 years ago. The massive walls showing both their age and strength. The program was highly varied with a strong emphasis on traditional music from various regions of Southern Italy. Having back-to-back concerts featuring music from the traditions of disparate native lands Italy and Patagonia, Argentina is a very special and unique quality of this amazing concert series. Hats off to the organizers for providing such an informative, beautiful program. Tonight s lead vocal performer Marco Beasley, a native Napolitano, has a beautiful voice, trained in Renaissance era vocal motifs. He is also a marvelous actor and raconteur; even I, a non-italian speaker, was amused and engaged by his presentations. The accompaniment included multiple styles of ancient lutes and ancient-style tambourines and framedrums added remarkably subtle percussion. The musicians also provided the accompaniment for a very enjoyable dancer. As experienced each evening thus far, virtuosity is the norm among these remarkable professionals from all over the world. More to come!

4 Page 4 of 8 August 22, 2016*: Perhaps a risk of attending concerts every evening is that one begins to be less impressed by the experience or starts to run out of superlatives to describe the experience. However, I can assure you that the 3-players that presented last evening s (August 21) concert in the Palazzo Chigi in San Quirico deserve every superlative that one can muster. World famous cellist, Gary Hoffman the first North American winner of the Rostropovich International Competition in Paris was the headline performer. He was joined by pianist Stephen Swedish and violinist Eleonora Matsuno, maestros in their own right, in creating a beautiful evening of music from Couperin, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. This trio came together specifically for the Paesaggi Musicali Toscani and it is most impressive that their collaboration, albeit brief, is so amazingly successful. Perhaps the magical natural landscapes (paesaggi) of Tuscany can be credited with enabling and nurturing this wonderful collaboration. August 24, 2016*: Day trips to Montalcino (8-22) and Pienza/Montepulciano (8-23) occupied most of the hours before 6:00 PM for the last two days. I will return to speak briefly about these adventures. Most important are the concerts on these last two evenings. On Monday, August 22, we shared a pre-concert buffet in the little village of Vignoni a mere 2 km along and up an unpaved road from San Quirico. Getting there by car made the up and the unpaved a non-issue, but even had I been required to walk, I assure you the effort would have been more than worth it. This quaint, ancient village I expect it might, at one time, been an outpost of San Quirico - is lovely, with amazing views from its high overlook on the valley to the north. The performance was by a trio that calls itself Il Furibondo, The Furious. To me, this name was in stark contrast to the music which was measured, patient, carefully assembled and only once clearly established from each of the players Marcello Scandelli cello, Liana Mosca violin, and Gianni De Rosa viola woven together in dramatic finales. These artists brought together works both J.S. and W.F. Bach transcribed by Mozart in remarkable and unusual tapestries. Some pieces, as they wove them, had an almost 20th century feel with notable atonalities and patient, studied tempos that created totally new experiences from the early masters Mozart and the Bachs. I would love to have the opportunity and ability to learn from Il Furibondo how they created and view this wonderful work, but I assure you that enjoying it in the remarkably intimate, little chapel of San Biagio required only an open mind and attentiveness. The following evening s (August 23) concert, found us back at the Palazzo Chigi here in San Quirico. The space is pleasant and the acoustics seem excellent. The first part of the concert featured an extremely gifted quartet Quartetto Nous. They have won many international competitions and are recognized as one of the finest young quartets in Italy and likely in the world.

5 Page 5 of 8 Their first two pieces, a Schubert and a Debussy, were, as I have said so many times about the performances here, superlative! The audience reception echoed my sense of what I had experienced. As mentioned for other events in this series, this evening s concert also featured a unique work created by a collaboration specifically for the Paesaggi Musicali Toscani. Pianist Michele Fedrigotti, joined the quartet for a performance of Chopin s Concerto per pianoforte no. 2 in F Minor Op. 21. The Chopin piece for string quartet is a musical combination which was a new experience for me. I actually found myself writing some ideas in my program as the piece progressed. In particular, I experienced the strings as framing and supporting the piano passages but always in balance and enriching them, completing them exquisitely. It was my favorite Chopin ever! Again the audience reacted with great enthusiasm and we were treated to an encore of major passage of the Chopin. By the way, encores have been typical here at the Paesaggi Musicali Toscani, perhaps a tradition that did not make it across the Atlantic. At the risk of boring you, I want to note for my own memories how I am beginning to understand the title Tuscan Musical Landscapes as a wonderfully appropriate and insightful metaphor for this concert series. Some of the terms that I have used to describe the performances I have experienced woven, quilt, varied, creative, nurtured seem also to be appropriate to the Tuscan landscapes and lifestyles that we have experienced, particularly these past two days. Our visit to Montalcino just 14 km west revealed hundreds of acres of wheat fields, under post-harvest preparation, and similar large areas dedicated to the Sangiovese grape the source of the world famous Brunello wines. The terrain is gently rolling and almost a golden-ochre in the bright sun. As ever, the towns are nestled high up on significant, somewhat isolated hills. To the east, the hills are steeper, more numerous and higher. There are many more trees and the agriculture more reminiscent of eastern, rather than plain-states US farming. Everywhere the landscape is a patchwork of fields with much darker colors of soils to the east but always a richness and sense of fertility, nurture, creation, and growth. Much like the musical collaborations we experience each evening. It just feels right and I had to say it!!!! Fino a domani! August 26, 2016*: The delightful weather bright sunshine, temperatures in the 80 s during the day and into the 60 s overnight, all with low humidity and the beautiful scenery continue to make this an idyllic location for an extended concert series such as the Paesaggi Musicali Toscani. What continues to amaze me even more than the environs, is the perfection of this concert series. I fretted in an earlier blog that I was running out of superlatives, even after just a few concerts of the 11 that we will enjoy. The stress on my limited writing talents created by the last two performances is enormous. On Wednesday evening (August 24), a 22-year-old, prize-winning violinist, I- Jung Huang from Taiwan and the very highly regarded Todd Crow, pianist, performed here at the Palazzo Chigi in San Quirico D Orcia. I, and everyone in the room, were thrilled with their beautiful renditions of Brahms and Debussy. I know Maestro Crow will forgive me if I focus just a bit on the young violinist. In jotting down a few reactions during the performance I remarked: virtuosity way beyond her years!!!. This note was elicited during the performance of a piece from Henryk Wieniawski ( ) with the descriptor: Theme Original Varie in A maggiore, op. 15. This was an

6 Page 6 of 8 exceptionally varied, often complex but truly lovely piece that also struck me as a test-piece for violin proficiency. She just dazzled throughout, left me breathless and delighted! I felt the same excitement in the audience: we had just been introduced to an enormous talent, a major star in the musical constellation of our time. In a very touching and appropriate gesture, I-Jung offered a lovely encore in remembrance of all those suffering from the recent earthquake which devastated Italian cities just two-hundred kilometers ESE of our location. The next evening (August 25), we again were treated to a violin-piano duet, this time featuring the renowned Italian violinist Domenico Nordio and pianist Pietro de Maria, another exceptionally accomplished and awarded artist. Their program of Brahms and Strauss was rich and powerful. It elicited adjectives such as exceptional and phenomenal from a professional musician who shared the evening with us. A feature of this concert series - which I think I mentioned in earlier musings is the incredible variety and inventiveness in the programming. As I said earlier, this variety is not randomness, rather I see contrast, complementarity, and a sense of exploration. Each evening has just the right touch of newness, with an unwavering dedication to quality, which makes my sharing the adventure a thrill. Grazie Mille!!!!! August 27, 2016*: Finally feel at home with my surroundings, all our daily needs are met without much preparation or concern such a nice feeling. We continue visits to the beautiful Tuscan villages which adorn the hill tops. Each has its special charm or attraction some are famous, such as San Gimignano, which we visited on the 25th - others much less so but, all the same, delightful encounters creating wonderful memories (and a far too copious array of pictures!!!). The concert program also continues in the vein of delightful encounters and wonderful memories. Last evening, August 26, was a good example. We were treated to an all- Mozart evening which included a special staging of Alexander Pushkin s Mozart and Salieri, this play was the inspiration for the highly acclaimed movie Amadeus. The performance was cleverly staged in a small piazza adjacent to the Palazzo Chigi in San Quirico. Lighting, sound, blocking, and acting were well coordinated and the overall production, with the particularly well interleaved Mozart score, was strikingly effective. The Orchestra da Camera Milano Classica was outstanding. I found the moral and artistic struggles of the protagonists evident and moving, in spite of the language difference. The program

7 Page 7 of 8 closed with a touching rendition of Mozart s last, unfinished composition, Lacrimosa, which was dedicated to the victims of the recent earthquake. Saturday s (August 27) concert schedule called for TWO performances! The first, at 17:30, was an all Vivaldi program, opening with the Sinfonia de L Olimpiade in C Major (RV 725). This was followed with five Concerti with different combinations of strings and, for two of them, a baroque-era flauto, a lovely, pipelike flute. The program was performed by Academia Ottoboni, a group from Rome which was led by flautist Manuel Granatiero. Often during this series, I have been challenged by the experiencing unfamiliar music and, not being musically trained, I pretty much have had to go with my personal reactions which to one more knowledgeable probably seem naive at best, perhaps ill-informed at worst. Experiencing the amazing performance of my favorite baroque composer didn t require any special knowledge or insight, it was simply a wonderful, joy-filled delight. Bravissimo! The second performance that evening (August 27 at 21:15) of the evening featured Avi Avital, a world renown, Grammy nominated, mandolinist. Our hosts at the conference tried to prepare us for how special his performance would be, however, no words suffice for what we did experience. Notes jotted down on my program included: magical, impossible dexterity, incredible musicality, so real and unassuming a performer. He played a wide variety of music, including one of his own compositions. My favorite of the eight pieces in the program was Cymbeline composed by David Bruce for mandolin and string quartet. It was an exciting, stunning performance which highlighted an amazing collaboration of Avital and the remarkable Quartetto Indaco. Their performance of Bartok s Rumanian Dances was a whole new experience for me rich, joyous, and engaging were among my notes for these pieces. It is a testimony to the Paesaggi Musicali Toscani that performers such as Avital come here to collaborate and perform. Some of the musicians we saw during the week were with us, as members of other ensembles, throughout the week. This was true for the members of the Quartetto Indaco. It was wonderful to experience their versatility and virtuosity for a range of music from baroque to modern. In this performance, the Quartetto

8 Page 8 of 8 featured music by Giovanni Sollima, a contemporary composer, and Astor Piazzolla, a 20th century composer, in addition to the David Bruce piece noted above. Sad to say, we have but one concert remaining. Fino a domani. September 4, 2016*: On our return flight to home, finally with time to spend a few moments reviewing the last concert in the 11 day, 12 performance series: Paesaggi Musicali Toscani. I probably have already commented that each performance was an exciting event each evening I found myself anticipating something that would be innovative, interesting, intimate, and virtuosic. The final performance by the Quartetto di Cremona, on Sunday, August 28, continued and in many ways was the acme of this concert series. Recognized world-wide as one of the premier string quartets in the world, this marvelous group performed a very, very difficult program. They opened with Haydn s Quartet in E Flat major, op. 64. n.6, followed with the Shostakovich quartet n.8 in C minor, op. 110, and for the finale played Beethoven s quartet in A minor op The first two were totally new pieces to me. I found the Haydn surprisingly unfamiliar in terms of my experience with Haydn. The Shostakovich was very dark, heavy with tragic emotions but very recognizably Shostakovich. Again, the finale was a new experience. From beginning to end, my notes emphasized the amazing qualities of their individual and group articulation. For the Shostakovich, one would have thought we had multiple-member string sections, so rich and intense was their rendition. Eventually, I expressed my reaction in terms that are familiar to me as a physicist. This quartet, as a result of their individual skills and their coherent playing, created music of laser-like intensity and purity of sound. Their coherent interaction created a totally new oneness that far exceeded what any one performer could achieve - it was breathtaking. A more knowledgeable commenter than I said that the program performed by any other quartet would have been unintelligible. Following the 6:00 PM concert, Barb and I were privileged to join some of the musicians and the artistic directors for a dutch dinner in a delightful local ristorante. This type of post-concert get together was common each evening; this was the first that we attended, the others followed concerts which started at 9:15 PM, far too late for us! We were beguiled with the stories that the attendees shared. The lives of professional performers are quite a bit more exciting, challenging, and romantic than what I have experienced as a professional scientist. An unassuming candor and a deep appreciation for a career in helping to create beauty (a characterization by a leading musician) marked their conversation. We truly appreciated and delighted in this wonderful sharing. The dinner was just one more amazing experience that marked the 11 days of Paesaggi Musicali Toscani, a fitting finale for one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I am very grateful for this opportunity and, who knows, hopefully it won t be my last. Arrivederci!

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