Franz Liszt: O Roma nobilis
Ottorino Respighi: Fountains of Rome
Franz Liszt: Dall’alma Roma
Ottorino Respighi: Roman Festivals
Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Video artist: Yuri Ancarani
Since I’ve been spending quality time in Rome those last couple of years, my one and only foray into its fancy Parco della Musica, a de rigueur stop for anybody with even just the slightest interest in classical music or modern architecture, was wildly successful in terms of musical experience — It was a recital by Eugene Kissin. Nuff said. — but a bit frustrating in terms of the journey to get there (and back) from San Giovanni. So I did what any normal music lover would have done: I looked for and found an apartment within walking distance of it. Et voilà ! If the mountain would not come to Mohammed, Mohammed went to the mountain, or, in my case, to Flaminio.
And that’s why, after a few weeks filled with unparalleled sunshine, food, history, cappuccinos and music in Naples, I moved to my new neighborhood and got busy exploring my new surroundings, becoming acquainted with my new washing machine, returning to favorite places, hanging out with dear friends, taking care of that pesky thing called work, and indulging in locally developed addictions (So glad I made it back in time for the short puntarelle window!).
And then serendipity struck. As I was trying to plan my highly anticipated return to the Parco della Musica as a new and proud local, I noticed that its prestigious residents, the consistently fabulous Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, had been tapped for a particularly appropriate program, as if to welcome me back to the Eternal City and thank me for moving significantly closer, or at least that’s what I like to think.
Therefore, last Saturday afternoon, I was getting mentally prepared for five short pieces about Rome by Ottorino Respighi and Franz Liszt as well as the documentary especially created for the occasion by Italian video artist Yuri Ancarani. And the cherry on top: The concert would be conducted by one of my favorite maestros ever since our National Symphony Orchestra days back in Washington, DC, the brilliant artist and wonderful human being Ivan Fischer. Stars had finally aligned.
It all started in the foyer of the Santa Cecilia concert hall, where a few enlarged stills from the film were displayed featuring, of all things, a cowboy and his horse among archaeological ruins, possibly as an homage to Sergio Leone’s popular spaghetti westerns? Regardless, I was intrigued. Then, upon stepping into the huge auditorium, I was greeted by an image of white clouds in a blue sky on the large screen above the stage. M’kay. Not exactly ground-breaking art, but on the other hand, the performance had not technically started so no judgment should be passed.
Once music and video got underway, it soon became clear that the visual part of our evening would focus on Rome’s legendary movie studios Cinecittà, first with historic black and white footage showing how the magic of movie-making has been materializing there since 1937, from seriously over-the-top peplums to opaque existentialist films, from blue-collar workers making humongous and complex sets with their bare hands to major movie stars making fleeting, unscripted, and oh so fun cameos.
Here were Anthony Quinn, Jack Palance and Silvana Mangano in the biblical epic Barabbas, there Chalton Heston as almighty Ben-Hur riding his chariot, here a juvenile Gina Lollobrigida, there a radiant Sophia Loren, here a bored Monica Vitti, there Fellini, here Antonioni, and of course our beloved Marcello Mastroianni casually chatting while holding a cigarette. Needless to say, the life-long movie buff in me was totally thrilled by this unexpected look behind the scenes during the heyday of Italian cinema, even if I could not really figure out the connection to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” piece.
But wait, the choral song that followed, Franz Liszt’s musical version of the medieval paean poem “O Roma nobilis”, in fact was accompanied by a slideshow of Rome’s vertiginous pine trees reaching for impeccable blue skies. Since the superb chorus was nowhere to be seen, just heard, those perfectly nice, but here again not exactly ground-breaking, images got all our attention, and we were able check the Roman pines off our list.
Next, Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome” did get some footage of water in various natural settings, although thankfully Ancarani did not go for the obvious and refrained from including the Trevi Fountain, or any other fountains for that matter, at that point. It is during that piece though, that the relatively good-looking cowboy and his extremely good-looking horse appeared and started wandering kind of aimlessly among what seemed to be ancient Roman ruins from movie sets. And so did we.
The second and last choral piece of the program, Liszt’s “Dall’alma Roma”, was again performed by the chorus standing right outside the auditorium, and was heard perfectly well inside, which incidentally further highlighted the space’s genuinely impressive acoustics. Since the screen filled up with more images of white clouds in impeccable blue skies, I turned my undivided attention to the ethereally beautiful music and enjoyed every second of it.
For Respighi’s last composition of his trilogy, “Roman Festivals”, the cowboy and his horse came back, hung out with another dude for a little while, and then, without any warning, we found ourselves facing the closed gates of Cinecittà Street, the entrance of the amusement park Cinecittà World, from the inside. Once those opened, smartphone-toting visitors started eagerly streaming in toward us, and that was kind of scary. More light-hearted was the series of youngsters dressed in vibrant colors videoing one another frenetically dancing in front of some of Rome’s best-known landmarks.
Thing is, these days there’s really no need to go to a concert hall to feel invaded by countless hordes of unruly, clueless, self-absorbed and social media-obsessed tourists, just trying to cross the historic center will do the trick. But then again, Rome and Cinecittà have survived worse.
And what about the music in all of this, you may ask? Well, considering the vast amount of talent on and off the stage, it came as no surprise that the entire performance was remarkably colorful, naturally dynamic and totally engaging. Of course, one might think that, since the first two symphonic poems of Respighi’s trilogy were written especially for their orchestra, the musicians of Santa Cecilia had a vested interest in doing an exceptional job at bringing them to life, and it may be so. In my view, they’re simply excellent musicians happy to play exciting compositions.
The performance’s big challenge though, was that the sounds occasionally had a hard time competing for attention against the visuals, mostly because the large screen was showing a bright, evolving journey while the hard-working orchestra below was dimly lit. However, I can say from personal experience that any effort to focus on the music was richly rewarded — everything from the evocative poetry and compelling sensuality to the infectious playfulness and fierce intensity of the various tableaux reminding me why Rome is the Eternal City — and considerably contributed to the overall success of the unusual endeavor.
Even better: With a 15-minute walk each way, a 6:00 PM starting time, a 90-minute running time and no intermission, I was home for dinner.