Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Luminaria - Vallini, Britten & Rheinberger - 11/28/21

Simone Vallini: Ex Novo per Pianoforte 
Simone Vallini: Piano 
Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony for String Orchestra, Op. 4 
Orchestra Nova Amadeus 
Gianluigi Dettori: Conductor 
Joseph Rheinberger: Organ Concerto No. 2, Op. 177 
Orchestra Nova Amadeus 
Gianluigi Dettori: Conductor 
Stefano Vasselli: Organ 

Thanksgiving week was a good week in Italy’s capital city, Gabriele Bonci’s fabulous pizzas making up more than efficiently for the absence of turkey and gravy in my life, and I was particularly thankful to whomever decided to inject some less predictable works into the music-by-candlelight Luminaria series at the American Episcopal Church of St. Paul's Within the Walls (A.K.A. chiesa di San Paolo entro le Mura to the locals) last Sunday evening. 
Checking both the “brand-new” and “local” boxes, the program was going to start with the world première (“Prima Execuzione Assoluta”. It sounds even better in Italian, doesn’t it?) of Simone Vallini’s Ex Novo per Pianoforte, which would be performed by the young but already multi-tasking and prize-winning Roman composer, pianist, teacher and singer himself. 
The other mysterious (to me) item on the playing list was the Organ Concerto by 19th-century German composer and organist Joseph Rheinberger, but since we would be fortunate enough to have the church’s very own music director and organist Stefano Vasselli starring in it, I was confident that I would get to discover it in optimal circumstances. 
Book-ended by those two unknown quantities was 20th-century English composer, conductor and pianist Benjamin Britten, whose name I am always happy to see in a program, more particularly when it relates to his secular output, like his Simple Symphony
I am not sure if this was due to the ubiquitous “Black Friday” sales still going strong or the holiday decorations springing up all over the city, or to the fact that Roman audiences may just not be into novelty to begin with, but the church ended up being about half-empty for the concert. While having a pew to myself and very few people behind me was a rather special treat, I also could not help but think that this was not bidding well for future more left-field endeavors (Sigh). 

After a quick introduction, Simone Vallini sat down at the piano and launched into his short and thoroughly engaging Ex Novo per Pianoforte, which started with pretty cascades of notes and ended with a rumbling thunder. There was a lot going on in between, including the hidden and not so hidden personally meaningful melody mentioned by Vallini, and we were eventually left still wanting for more. 
Britten’s Simple Symphony, which was performed in its string orchestra version, was also a youthful effort since the composer used melodies and other bits and pieces that he had written in his pre-teen years (as you would, I guess, when you have that kind of talent). Come to think of it, just the titles of the four movements kind of say it all: Boisterous Bourrée, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimentale Sarabande and Frolicsome Finale
On Sunday, maestro Gianluigi Dettori and the feisty Orchestra Nova Amadeus grabbed the whole set and turned it into 20 minutes of vibrant, carefree fun. The bourrée was irresistibly inviting, the famous pizzicati merrily kept on popping, the sarabande shamelessly pulled at the heartstrings, and the finale concluded the ride in terrifically high spirits. At the end, a grand old time had definitely been had by all indeed. 
Next, the pièce de résistance of the evening, Rheinberger’s Organ Concerto No. 2, called for a slightly larger orchestra and, of course, the mighty organ. I was very much looking forward to it as I find the organ to be an under-appreciated and under-estimated instrument. That said, when the time had come, the opening notes were so assertively ominous that I half-expected to see the Phantom of the Opera suddenly materialize before us. 
An all-around successful combination of organ and orchestra, the score contained plenty of exciting sounds and appealing ideas without any undue fuss or idiosyncrasy. The resounding anguish of the Grave was eventually tempered by the lushly lyrical Romantic waves of the Andante before the Con moto brought a powerful, borderline pompous, end to the totally satisfying journey. Seriously, why don’t we hear that type of music more often? 

Our effusive clapping did not get us an encore, but I easily got over it as I rewarded myself with a decadent gelato on my long but endlessly entertaining way home through the increasingly bedecked and festive city. Now that’s certainly one way to spend an enjoyable Sunday evening.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Rome Chamber Music Festival - Beethoven & Chausson - 11/21/21

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 (Razumovsky) 
Lawrence Dutton: Viola 
Aubree Oliverson: Violin 
Sara Scanlon: Cello 
Augusta Schubert: Violin 
Ernest Chausson: Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet in D Major, Op. 21 
Anna Black: Violin 
Robert McDuffie: Violin 
Matous Peruska: Violin 
Daniele Valabrega: Viola 
Kristina Vocetkova: Cello 
Derek Wang: Piano 

The end of last week were gloriously sunny and warm here in the Eternal City, which prompted me to venture down the blissfully less trodden path to the fascinating neighborhoods of Aventino, Testaccio and Ostiense, the latter being where I connected my previous life to my current life with a supremely tasty focaccia in the world’s biggest Eataly location (Imagine that: Eating lunch at Eataly in Italy!). 
Eventually, an invitation to the exclusive opening night of the 18th edition of the Rome Chamber Music Festival at the Auditorium Conciliazione on Sunday evening unexpectedly fell on my lap, and I could not have imagined a better way to wrap up a fantastic weekend than in the company of promising young musicians who had been hand-picked from all over the world, including The Robert McDuffie Center for Strings of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, to participate in the prestigious De Simone & Partners Young Artist Program in Rome. 
The founder and artistic director of this terrific endeavor is no less than internationally renowned and incorrigibly adventurous violinist Robert McDuffie, who understandably fell in love with Rome while making his professional debut here 27 years ago, and has clearly found the perfect excuse to keep on coming back. I mean, why bother throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain if you can come up with your own annual festival? 

And just like that, after a short opening speech by the man himself and a short introduction to the opening number by violinist Aubree Oliverson, the five-day music feast was kicked off with Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartet, a stunningly big, bold and beautiful work that the composer paradoxically wrote when he was already showing signs of impending deafness. Whether or not this ordeal is what persuaded him not to hold anything back remains debatable, but the result is indisputably dazzling. 
On Sunday, the endlessly ambiguous Allegro vivace, the mournfully obsessive Andante con moto, the pleasantly light-footed Menuetto, and the no-holds-barred explosion of breathless speed races of the Allegro molto were all brought to life with plenty of brilliance, vigor and aplomb. With the additional advantage of the auditorium’s commendable acoustics, Beethoven’s music sounded as fresh and exciting as ever. 
And if the violist looked somewhat familiar to me, there was a good reason for that: He turned out to be Lawrence Dutton, a long-time member of the Emerson String Quartet, one of the most prominent ensembles of chamber music whose members are planning to disband next season after a four-decade career, a couple of personnel changes and a bunch of awards. With a coach like that, it is no wonder that the students brought their A game to the stage and kept it throughout the challenging 30-minute piece. 
Not to be outdone, the next ensemble wasted no time launching into a dynamite reading of Chausson’s extended, complex, and yet spontaneously engaging Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet. McDuffie himself kept busy fulfilling his double duty as coach and solo violin, but all those responsibilities did not prevent him from effortlessly matching the boundless enthusiasm of his young charges while continuously helping to bring out the best in them. 
Not that it was such a tall order to begin with as they all seemed more than ready, willing and able. And sure enough, they proved to be experts at voluptuously unfurling the gorgeous melodies, vividly highlighting the vibrant colors, and firmly mastering the mood changes, keeping the momentum briskly going while also making sure to give the music enough space to breathe. The première of what is considered Chausson’s first mature chamber work was allegedly a big success, and Sunday evening’s performance of it was definitely one too. 

After this exceptional musical evening, the return to reality was kind of eerie as I was walking towards St-Peter’s Square on my way back home, and passing by equally impressive numbers of homeless people setting up camp for the night, seagulls gorging on discarded food, tourists admiring the floodlit basilica, and police officers keeping a watchful eye over everybody. There really are no dull moments in Rome.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Luminaria - Franck & Fauré - 11/14/21

César Franck: Chorale No. 3 in A Minor 
César Franck: Panis Angelicus 
Gabriel Fauré: Requiem, Op. 48 
Saint-Paul’s Camerata 
Conductor: Antonio Rendina 
Coro Città di Roma 
Coro giovanile MusicaViva 
Paolo Ciavarelli: Baritone 
Carla Ferrari: Soprano 
Frederico Vallini: Organist 

Two weeks after enjoying a wonderful and packed performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the beautiful Episcopal Chiesa di San Paolo dentro le Mura, also known as St. Paul’s within the Walls, in Rome as part of the Sunday evening series Luminaria, I was back last Sunday evening for a slightly less packed performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, a shorter, and less dramatic, but just about as poignant masterpiece, which I was equally excited to hear underneath the church’s soberly starry ceiling, basking in the still rather inconspicuous, although more centrally placed, candlelight. 
Even better, as if to get audience and artists in a French Romantic—and ecclesiastic—mood, the concert was going to open with two church pieces by César Franck starring his (and Fauré’s) beloved organ, and therefore also provide us with the perfect occasion to become better acquainted with the many possibilities of the imposing and mysterious instrument. 
Due to—What else?—the relentless COVID-19 pandemic, this particular program had to be postponed not once but twice, and it apparently took no less than a small miracle, or at least a lot of dedication, for all the relevant parties to get together and be able to deliver before an audience. I, for one, could not help but feel grateful for the delays since they made it possible for me to attend, never mind that it meant going out on a miserably wet weekend evening. At least, I figured, I wouldn’t have to crash a stranger’s funeral this time.

A classic of the organ repertoire, Franck’s Chorale No. 3 is a complex 15-minute piece that requires no less than a certified virtuoso to pull it off. Luckily for us, we had him on Sunday in organist extraordinaire Federico Vallini, who also turned out to be the hardest working musician of the entire evening as he was featured in all three works on the program. 
Equally divinely inspired, but clocking in at barely four minutes, was Franck’s glorious Panis Angelicus, which benefitted in no small part from the winning combination of the instrumental trio of harp, cello, and organ, and soprano Carla Ferrari’s crystal-clear voice and heavenly singing. And just like that, the “bread of angels” became food for soul for the rest of us. 
When the time came for him to compose his own Requiem, Fauré resolutely chose to downsize the ostentatious pomp and circumstance usually expected from religious masses, and to focus on the wide range of human emotions and the perspective of eternal rest (requiem) instead, originally with a little help from a small orchestra, an organ, a mixed choir, and soprano and baritone soloists. 
Constituted of several well-balanced movements of genuinely transcendental music, the early score was given a most respectful and heartfelt, rightly more liturgical than operatic, performance on Sunday evening, during which musicians and singers proved time and time again why Fauré’s deceptively modest effort has remained one of the most popular requiems of them all. Seriously, I did not even miss a full-blown Dies Irae.
Unsurprisingly, the music was naturally gorgeous to begin with. And then, its uplifting quality was sporadically heightened by special moments such as the exquisite violin solo in Sanctus, which readily managed to convey sheer beauty instead of mere sentimentality, and the baritone and soprano arias, which were superbly sung by, respectively, Paolo Ciavarelli and Carla Ferrari. One could almost sense countless putti placidly fluttering about in, ironically enough, one of the few Roman churches that does not feature any. 

The thrilling performance was greeted by a well-deserved loud ovation, which prompted the powers that be to treat us to another splendid Libera me, doing again full justice to its epic yet intimate nature, before sending us off into the dark and rainy night, but with at least the gift of temporarily elevated spirits.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Luminaria - All-Mozart - 10/31/21

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Church Sonata in D Major, K.144 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Church Sonata in F Major, K. 244 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Church Sonata in D Major, K. 245 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 
Orchestra Sinfonica Città di Roma 
Conductor: Alfonso Todisco 
Coro Radix Harmonica 
Artistic Director: Giuseppe Pecce
Ferruccio Finetti: Bass 
Natalia Pavlova: Soprano 
Maria Arcangela Tenace: Mezzo-soprano 
Raffaele Tassone: Tenor 

As my relentless search for live classical music in Rome is slowly but surely starting to bear some fruit, I have to tip my hat (or should it be my galea?) off to the Episcopal Chiesa di San Paolo dentro le Mura, also known as St. Paul’s within the Walls or the American Church in Rome, which also happens to be the first Protestant church to be built in Rome, for its Sunday evening series Luminaria, whose mission is to present popular classical music works performed by candlelight. 
Truth be told, the few candles standing outside the aisles last Sunday evening did not make a big difference in the already beautifully lit space, whose stunning mosaics and polychrome brick-and-stone design were a definitely unusual, yet genuinely engaging, feast for the eyes. But then again, the church being as young as the unified country of Italy itself, it should come as no surprise that it (prettily) distinguishes itself from most of the other places of worship in the city. 
The program that had caught my attention was Mozart’s magnificent Requiem, a work that I simply cannot stay away from, no matter how many times I’ve heard it before. Apparently, a lot of people could not either as the sizable space was eventually overflowing with extra chairs to keep up with the demand. Because, after all, there’s just nothing like wrapping up the weekend before All Saints’Day with a timeless mass for the dead being performed under a splendid mosaic of the Tree of Life in the Eternal City. 

As I was handed the program, I was happily surprised to see that we would start with three bonus tracks in the form of three short, but unsurprisingly all-around delightful, church sonatas by Mozart too. Even better, they not only provided me with the opportunity to get into a Mozartian mood (not that it is such a tall order), but also to find out with immense relief that the venue’s acoustics were pretty decent, at least from my premium spot. 
And then came the man’s ultimate masterpiece, which, although he did not get to finish it himself, never fails to display an extraordinary degree of maturity, coherence, and enduring emotional weight. Hearing it again after almost two years of global upheaval that has led to the new world we all live in now was both exciting and eerie; it clearly showed why classics will survive just about anything, and why we need them so badly as comfort food for the soul while we struggle through unpredictable and irrevocable changes. 
From the haunting first notes of Introitus to the heavenly conclusion of Lux Aeterna, the Orchestra Sinfonica Città di Roma and the Coro Radix Harmonica gave a solid reading of the always eventful 50-minute journey under the vibrant baton of the young maestro Alfonso Todisco. And if the overall intensity of the endeavor occasionally made the many moving parts sound like they were not always quite in perfect sync, those very few glitches were in fine too inconspicuous to really matter. Even the blaring sounds of extra security vehicles on via Nazionale (Evidently the G20 bigwigs couldn’t be bothered to finish in time to let us enjoy our concert in peace) were all taken in stride. 
Not to be outdone by the main forces there, the four soloists handled their parts with plenty of commitment and poise too, especially bass Ferruccio Finetti and tenor Raffaele Tassone, whose singing was impressively clear, bright and powerful. As for the ladies, soprano Natalia Pavlova and mezzo-soprano Maria Arcangela Tenace had unquestionably lovely voices that brought glistening touches of pure beauty to the whole experience. 

Some members of the rapt audience burst into applause as soon as the last notes were reached, depriving the rest of us of those precious few suspended seconds necessary to make the switch back to reality, but then again, such is life. 
At least we were treated to another explosive Dies Irae by orchestra and chorus, and I ended my evening enjoying not one, but two gelati (Hey, my walk home was over one hour and I hadn’t had any dinner), as well as a few cross-generational Halloween-themed sightings, as I was making my merry way through the flood-lit, boisterous city.