Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Teatro San Carlo - Bluebeard’s Castle & La voix humaine - 05/26/24

Bluebeard’s Castle 
Composer: Bela Bartok 
Librettist: Bela Balazs 
Conductor: Edward Gardner 
Producer/Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski 
Elina Garanca: Judith 
John Relya: Duke Bluebeard

La voix humaine 
Composer: Francis Poulenc 
Librettist: Jean Cocteau 
Conductor: Edward Gardner 
Producer/Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski 
Barbara Hannigan: Elle

As my extended residency in Naples is unfolding nicely with plenty of business and pleasure, including a mild but discernible earthquake right before my otherwise quiet birthday to keep things exciting, it was also further enhanced by the temporary presence of my host Vittorio’s French cousin, who, rather implausibly, had turned out to be a former summertime neighbor of my mom’s (We do live in a small world, after all). 
Being another dedicated opera buff, Michèle had strategically planned her visit according to the Teatro San Carlo’s opera season, where we had found an intriguing double bill consisting of Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, starring the ever-fabulous Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca and Canadian-American bass John Relya, and Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine, starring the ever-versatile Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan. 
So, a couple of weeks ago, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, after having fully enjoyed the traditional buffet of art & history at the stupendous Certosa di San Marino, a culinary feast featuring Vittorio’s priceless asparagus risotto, and a de rigueur stop at the nearby Gambrinus Caffè, we found ourselves in front of a surprisingly deserted opera house. That’s when I realized that I had misread the starting time as 5:30 PM when it was actually 5:00 PM, and my heart precipitously dropped. 
We were fortunately only five minutes late, and the San Carlo, one of the few unfailingly punctual institutions in Naples, is thankfully understanding and flexible when it comes to late comers. Therefore, after a mad dash up a couple of flights of stairs, an usher took us kindly and efficiently into a pitch dark, unexpectedly large and practically empty box, instructing us to go all the way to the first row, which we did as swiftly and discreetly as possible. 
The good news was we had missed just a few minutes of the performance, and none of the opera itself. The bad news was, as soon as the music started, a low humming noise coming from the projector located in the box next to my seat could be heard as well. The situation was partially improved when I moved slightly back, but never completely resolved since there was no intermission, and therefore no opportunity for me to change seats. But then again, (late-arriving) beggars cannot be choosers. 

I had had my first and only brush with Bluebeard’s Castle in, appropriately enough, Budapest many years ago, but my memory of it was rather faint. And missing part of the elaborate introduction (Was it a real dove we saw flying off???) on Sunday did not help put things together. But the main premise of Charles Perrault’s original folktale is not that complicated, and I quickly settled in. As for La voix humaine, I was in an even direst situation since I had only heard of it, never actually heard it, but I had full confidence in the reliable talents of Jean Cocteau and Francis Poulenc. 
One thing was for sure though, I was thrilled at the thought of experiencing Elina Garanca’s magic again, especially in such a fascinating role. And here she was, a naturally magnetic presence that was for the occasion wearing a green sheath dress, a white coat and a pair of red shoes (Could she get more Italian?), with a voice that was as sharp and intense, and consistently elegant, as I remembered it from my Met days. 
Her Judith was the expected endearingly curious young bride, but also oozed a heady combination of poised sensuality, growing anxiety and staunch determination that (Spoiler alert!) will not work out so well for her in the end. She clearly should have been more careful what she wished for, but her increasingly treacherous path to get to the hard truth led to an undeniably spectacular musical tour de force that we all fully relished, so no complaints there. 
As Duke Bluebeard, Judith’s endlessly mysterious cloak-clad husband, John Relyea did wonders with his impressive, and deliciously ominous, dark palette. A die-hard misogynist of the brooding kind in word and deed, who looked and sounded both at odds and in awe of his endlessly inquisitive new consort, he fought long and hard to keep her from his unforbidden secret. But he eventually had to give in and come clean, and still won in the end, toxic masculinity oblige, even if his victory was by all accounts depressingly joyless. 

If I had not known that this 2015 production by eminent Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski had been co-commissioned by the Opéra de Paris and the Teatro Real in Madrid, I would have automatically assumed that it had come straight from Berlin as the set had the kind of slick and cold aesthetic that can be found on many European opera stages these days. That said, I’ll be the first to admit that this resolutely minimalist approach created an eerie atmosphere full of engrossing suspense and unspoken horror that worked really well for the story. 
The almost bare stage, except for a bar (on which were placed an important bottle of whiskey and an even more important phone) and a sofa, would eventually be partially occupied by seven floor-to-ceiling glass cases containing admittedly stylish but rather gory symbols of what was lying behind each of the seven infamous (and, in this case, invisible) doors. We’re talking about things like a bathtub covered in blood-red satin for the torture chamber, a weapons collector’s kit for the duke’s man cave, orchids for the garden, and a black and white TV for the kingdom. Inventive, but not too much.
I definitely could have done without the performers sitting in the audience before coming on the stage or the black and white video in the background (Haven’t those tricks been used enough already?). Repeated close-ups of a young girl’s face quickly got old, especially after she also appeared on the stage with a snow globe (a link to the opening magician?). On the other hand, I unreservedly approve the excerpts of Jean Cocteau’s legendary 1946 film La belle et la bête, which provided a particularly clever way to introduce Jean Cocteau’s and Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine

Beside the cinematographic element, the transition was also built around the arrival of Barbara Hannigan, the star of the upcoming 40-minute one-woman show, out of breath and with a gun in her hand, as Bluebeard’s wives were unhurriedly exiting the stage. And just like that, she transported us smoothly into another place and time, in which reigned another musical style and another language, where the same kind of complicated human emotions were filling up the air. So many highly strung women, so little time. 
As Elle, the lonely bourgeois woman with the smart business suit and the impossibly long silky hair that is apparently all the rage in Naples these days (I still have to figure out why girls around here are so obsessed with the Kardashians’ looks) having one last heartbreaking, and frequently interrupted, telephone conversation with her lover, Hannigan spared no efforts to convey vulnerability, longing, and despair as she slowly but surely unraveled in real time before our eyes. 
Blessed with an incredibly wide vocal range that she continuously deployed to express her character’s erratic emotional journey, she also managed to pull off an extremely—I am tempted to say, excessively—physical performance that left many of us exhausted. Next to her non-stop agitation, the docile dog sharing the stage with her was the picture of Zen, and her wounded ex-beau not much more than an after-thought. 

Each of the back-to-back performances mightily benefited from their own scores, which were both completely unique and yet oddly similar in their appealing lyricism and unyielding tension, Bartok’s a seductively oppressive take on the ancient fairy tale, Poulenc’s an exquisitely frazzled accompaniment to a tragic modern monologue. Edward Gardner, who knows a thing or two about opera after his successful stint as music director of the English National Opera from 2007 to 2015, showed a deep respect and profound sensitivity towards the music and the performers, treating us to a totally rewarding musical experience while keeping us at the edge of our seats. 

Once the show was over, it turned out that the San Carlo had one last surprise in store for us. As soon as the lights came on, my companions and I realized that we had ended up in the San Carlo’s ultra-fancy royal box, which in retrospect explained the extra space and the priceless view. Needless to say, I immediately felt under-dressed, but then decided to make up for it with a slightly blasé attitude as we basked in our surreal surroundings for a few minutes, before coolly making our way through the horde of the less fortunate gathered outside trying to take a peek at the splendor reserved for the mighty. 
My friends completely absolved me for inadvertently making us late since I had given them something to write home about, and I half-forgave the San Carlo for putting me in a spot that, no matter how prestigious it was, came with an unwelcome soundtrack. Turned out that our legitimate box was, as had been planned when I bought the tickets, the one that was exceptionally occupied by the humming projector next door. Only in Naples.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Concerti in Floridiana - Four Seasons Four Hands - 05/12/24

Yoshinao Nakada: The Four Seasons of Japan 
Astor Piazzolla: The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (arranged by Kyoko Yamamoto) 
Sugiko Chinen: Piano 
Luca Arnaldo Maria Colombo: Piano 

After having settled comfortably into my house-sitting gig in Naples’ semi-upscale neighborhood of Arenella, I have been looking for ways to make my stay in the Parthenopean city even more special, beside further exploring the sprawling metropolis (Mergenella has been captivating my attention lately), indulging in the stupendous cuisine (If I look and act like a sfogiatella addict, it is because I am), and making new local friends (Salve Carmen!). 
And then, last week I had the bright idea to check the schedule of the concert series taking place in the neat Museo Duca di Martina of the lovely Villa Floridiana, my favorite spot for bonding not only with nature, but with the numerous cats living there as well, in the totally upscale neighborhood of the Vomero. Turned out that the next and last concert of the season was going to be an intriguing Japanese and Argentinian four-hand recital at the totally civilized hour of 11:30 AM the following Sunday. 
After reserving one seat by email and, lo and behold, not hearing back, I still decided to take a chance and go, figuring that I could always content myself with the park, its panoramic views, and its debonair furry residents if the ticket didn’t materialize. Last Sunday being Mothers’ Day in Italy, I had giddily sent my mom a special message at the crack of dawn to make sure she would have a nice surprise as soon as she turned on her phone. And surprised she was indeed, since I was two weeks early for the French Mother’s Day. Oh well. 
I eventually made it to Villa Floridiana, passing by a gazillion flower street vendors who had sprung up all over the neighborhood for the occasion, and once I got to the museum, lo and behold, there was no record of my reservation. But after I showed them proof and they did a bit of shuffling, I was handed a ticket and took a seat in the small, long and bare eggshell-and-ice blue room that quickly filled up to capacity. 
 The two musicians, Sugiko Chinen from Japan and Luca Arnaldo Maria Colombo from Italy, have worked as a musical duo for almost three decades, apparently making the most of their unusual but evidently winning combination. After having mastered the more traditional four-hands repertoire, they’re now focusing on more contemporary and exotic fare, which explains the genesis of last Sunday’s program “Four Hands Four Seasons.” 

The performance started with the more mysterious work of the day, Yoshinao Nakada’s The Four Seasons of Japan, which, oddly enough, consisted of six movements. Starting with spring, the music wasted no time celebrating nature’s renewal by joyfully conveying countless cherry blossoms popping up all over the place, before moving on to marveling at the bright sky of May, which we actually could almost see through the museum’s windows, and the majestic Mount Fuji, which we obviously could not. Long rainy days brought a bit of melancholia, and a dazzling evocation of rain drops galore. 
Summer, fall and winter may have been more succinctly described, but they were no less powerfully expressive and beautifully brought to life, all the way to winter’s falling snow and surrounding ice. Considering how many years they have been playing together, it came as no big shock that Colombo and Chinen immediately fell into an impeccably synchronized partnership, perfectly complementing each other without losing their own personality and mission. 
From Japan we moved right on to Argentina with Astor Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, a four-movement piece originally composed for a quintet featuring an electric guitar and a bandoneon, and later arranged several times for different instrumentations, including a four-hands version by Japanese pianist Kyoko Yamamoto. How about that for a smooth transition? And the transition was in fact very smooth despite the contrasting nature of the two works, Colombo and Chinen handling Piazzola’s sexy tango-infused rhythms just as well as they did Nakada’s more restrained sensibility. 
They had decided to start with fall so that the Southern hemisphere would not feel left out, and the audience was more than happy to follow them in this exciting adventure that sounded at the same time freely improvised and tightly controlled, and a lot of infectious fun was had by all. Even the grumpy-looking older lady a couple of seats to my right, who had been repeatedly making and unmaking a paper boat with her program sheet, felt compelled to stop and pay attention, and so did the elderly gentleman to my left, whose sporadic fidgeting came to a complete halt. Now that’s power. 

After much applause from the extremely enthusiastic crowd, the duo chose a typical Neapolitan treat courtesy of a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor as an encore: The Tarantella in G Minor by Nikolai Rubinstein, which they dedicated to all the mothers in the room and beyond, and which concluded this wonderful musical aperitivo with plenty of virtuosic fireworks.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Alexandre Kantorow - Brahms, Liszt, Bartok & Rachmaninoff - 04/10/24

Johannes Brahms: Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79 No. 1 
Franz Liszt: Étude d'exécution transcendante No.12 (Chasse-Neige)
Franz Liszt: Première année de pélerinage: Suisse (6. Vallée d’Obermann)
Bela Bartok: Rhapsody, Op. 1 
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28 
Johannes Brahms: Study No. 5 (for left hand alone) after Bach's Chaconne, BWV 1016. 1 

Although the Auditorium Parco della Musica has become one of my destinations of choice in the Eternal City, until recently my exploration of it had been limited to the Sala Santa Cecilia, its vast concert hall conceived for large-scale—or big name—performances. But then, earlier this month I finally got to check out the cool small Sala Petrassi with a delightful chamber music marathon, and last Wednesday, just in the nick of time as my stay in Rome is nearing its end, I had a ticket for a recital by one of the hottest newcomers on the scene in the last concert hall on my list, the medium-sized Sala Sinopoli. 
His name may sound Russian, but Alexandre Kantorow is as French as they come, from Clermont-Ferrand in fact, of all places, as is his dad, renowned violinist and conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow. While still in his mid-twenties, Kantorow Junior has already won countless international awards, earned endless lavish praise, and regularly performed in the world’s most prestigious venues with famous friends. Add to that pristine resume unfussy good looks and a modern casual style, and you have classical music’s latest “chouchou” (My besotted mom’s own term). 
Therefore, I was totally elated when I saw a poster advertising his concert a few weeks ago at the Parco della Musica and I promptly got a ticket for it, even if said concert would take place at the ungodly hour of 8:30 PM on a school night. But hey, the Sala Sinopoli turned out to be a welcoming and comfortable concert hall, not unlike New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, the program was exciting, and I felt totally privileged to be able to experience Kantorow’s magic in person before he inevitably moves on to bigger—if not necessarily better—venues. 

At the appointed time, an endearingly serious-looking Kantorow climbed on the stage, sat down at the piano and, without further ado, got down to business with Brahms’ Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79 No. 1, which happens to start at a sustained speed. Kantorow consequently hit the ground running to dazzling but not ostentatious effect, before showing profound sensitivity while going through the highly contrasting subsequent episodes as well as astonishing technique while navigating Brahms’ treacherously intricate score. Let’s face it: This young man really has it all. 
Liszt was next, with “Chasse-neige” (Snowplow), the twelfth and last of his Transcendental Studies, and “Vallée d’Obermann” (Obermann’s Valley) from the second book of his Years of Pilgrimage dedicated to Switzerland, whose intense expressiveness could have easily been used by Kantorow as a ready excuse to go all sentimental or flamboyant on us. But he didn’t, as he seems to be the kind of virtuoso who puts his superlative skills to the service of the music instead of his own ego. Hence, we got to enjoy a double dose of pure musical bliss. 
Written when budding Czech composer Bartok was still honing his craft, his Rhapsody, Op. 1 was a neat choice to conclude the first half of the program, not only because of its discreet Lisztian touches or its subtle inspiration from Hungarian music, but also because it was simply a lovely treat, one that does not appear often enough on concert programs. 

After an intermission during which fellow concert-goers around me rightly raved about Kantorow’s “amazing technique”, “soul” and “lightness (of touch)”, we were back for more with Rachmaninoff’s sprawling Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28. Starting and ending in darkness, this other rarely heard work takes the pianist and the audience through an often turbulent emotional journey, which even includes fleeting cameos by the Dies Irae, as if Rachmaninoff had not been able to channel his admittedly impressive creative juices into a tighter score, even after having made significant revisions to it. Kantorow, on the other hand, impeccably channeled Rachmaninoff and delivered another awe-inspiring performance. 
Truth be told, the last piece on the program, Brahms’ Study No. 5 (for left hand alone) after Bach's Chaconne, BWV 1016. 1, is the one that originally piqued my curiosity. Having gotten quite a few opportunities to hear Bach’s iconic Chaconne in its original form performed by various first-class violinists, I was wondering what it might sound like on the piano. Well, on Wednesday night, the result was definitely interesting, if a bit weird, and proved one more time that Kantorow can and will handle pretty much anything. 

It had been a long and no doubt taxing night for him, but he was kind enough to reward our loud and extended applause with a heart-felt rendition of “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, in the transcription by Victor Young and Nina Simone. And just as we had lost hope for more and were getting ready to leave, he eventually sat down at the piano one more time for an ethereally beautiful Petrarch's Sonnet No. 104 by Liszt, from, fittingly enough, his Second Year of Pilgrimage: Italy. And there we were.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Chamber Music Marathon - 04/07/24

Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44 
Antonin Dvorak: Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major Op. 81, B. 155 
Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op. 25 
Franz Schubert: Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 (The Trout) 
Teachers: Andrea Lucchesini: Piano 
Franco Petracchi: Piano 
Sonig Tchakerian: Violin 
Ivan Rabaglia: Violin 
Students: 
Pasquale Allegretti Gravina: Violin 
Gabriele Antinoro: Violin 
Sara Mazzarotto: Violin 
Tommaso Troisi: Violin 
Giovanni Mancini: Viola 
Lorenzo Meraviglia: Viola 
Matteo Mizera: Viola 
Daniele Valabrega: Viola 
Francesco Angelico: Cello 
Christian Barraco: Cello 
Filippo Boldrini: Cello 
Ludovica Cordova: Cello 
Emanuele Crucianelli: Cello 
Nicola Giacomelli: Piano 
Dimitri Malignan: Piano 
Rodolphe Menguy: Piano 
Francesco Maria Navelli: Piano 

Springtime, along with its longer and warmer days has arrived in Rome, and while the city has been frantically and often annoyingly trying to get ready for the jubilee next year (There were 6,702 work sites in early February, and while some have ended, others have popped up), it is still a wonderful time to be here, provided that unpredictable bouts of rain and predictable hordes of tourists do not spoil la dolce vita
My concert schedule has been kind of dormant lately, mostly because the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, which is basically Rome’s classical music home team, has been spending time in Salzburg for Easter and not much else has been happening, except for the variously talented but invariably indefatigable buskers regularly performing at the numerous landmarks all over the city. 
And then, earlier last week, just as I was walking by the quiet Auditorium Parco della Musica feeling rather desperate, I noticed a poster advertising a chamber music marathon featuring works by Schumann, Dvorak, Brahms, and Schubert in memory of Alfonso Guedin at 6:00 PM the following Sunday in the Sala Petrossi. I had no idea who Alfonso Guedin was, or where the Sala Petrossi was, but I was more than ready to partake in the tribute to him. 
I soon found out though, that Alfonso Guedin was a beloved violinist and violist teacher with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, who also led an illustrious career as a violist with the Academia’s orchestra and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai. He passed away in 2022, and Sunday’s concert would be the second one featuring teachers and students of the Accademia playing together in various combinations to honor him. 
So, on Sunday, as if to conclude a splendid and busy weekend on a high note, I had my first foray into Parco della Musica’s Sala Petrassi, which turned out to be a sleek-looking and acoustically blessed medium-sized concert hall, which kind of reminded me of Carnegie Hall’s intimate and oh so cool Zankel Hall. I was even handed a program upon arrival, which is a very unusual thing in Europe, where you have to pay for them, but hey, I did not question the favor and happily grabbed it. 
As we were already running slightly late, the Academia’s president showed up and introduced the event, paid a short tribute to Alfonso Guedin, and a lengthy tribute to retiring maestro Franco Petracchi, an eminent—and very talkative—double bass player with particularly enduring ties with the Academia, who would be playing his penultimate concert on Sunday for Schubert’s irresistible Trout. Not a bad way to wrap up his long and prestigious career in the Eternal City. 

Eventually, 20 minutes after the official start time, the marathon was finally kicked off with Schumann’s ground-breaking Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44. Indeed, it looks like, amazingly enough, nobody had seriously thought of combining piano and string quartet before. And then, in 1842, not only did Schumann decide he was game for experimenting with it, but he also ended up writing one of chamber music’s most brilliant compositions at an astonishing speed. The musicians on the stage were apparently as excited to play it as we were to hear it, and the marathon was off to an excellent start. 
After sliding down a few seats to escape the fidgety young girl behind me (Note to parents: If you’ve undertaken the laudable mission of introducing your unprepared child to classical music, an extended chamber music performance is not a good place to start), I had the ideal spot to fully enjoy the stunning opening line coming from the cello in Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major Op. 81, B 155, as well as the impressive remainder of the highly melodic, perfectly balanced, and boldly wide-ranging piece. The Czech composer may have been the least exalted name on the program, but this quintet clearly stood second to none. 

After a well-deserved intermission and a partial exodus of the audience, the second half of the marathon started with Brahms’ Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op. 25, another widely acknowledged masterpiece of the genre. On Sunday, however, it distinguished itself not only for its well-known ambition, magnificence, and scope, although all of them were on full and dazzling display, but also because for the first time in all my decades of concert-going, I saw somebody actually talk on their phone during the performance. The incident was short and discreet, the culprit quickly switching to texting (One has to be grateful for the little favors), but it still felt like a new low in concert behavior had been reached. 
And then came Schubert’s The Trout, whose unusual instrumentation consisting of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass would finally give us the opportunity to hear Franco Petracchi do this thing before he hangs up his double bass for good. Composed by the young city-dwelling Schubert as he was discovering and delighting in the joys of summer in the countryside, the ever-popular classic never fails to bring a breath of fresh air into stuffy concert halls. The dynamic take on it that filled the Sala Petrassi on Sunday evening did the trick once again, and also critically helped the audience members still in the race make it to the finish line in about three hours, which is incidentally and by far my best marathon time ever.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

I concerti dell'Aula Magna - Gautier Capuçon & Frank Braley - Absolute Beethoven - 03/16/24

Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 1 in F Major (Op. 5, No. 1) 
Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major (Op. 102, No. 1) 
Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 2 in G Minor (Op. 5, No. 2) 
Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major (Op. 69) 
Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major (Op. 102, No. 2) 
Frank Braley: Piano 
Gautier Capuçon: Cello 

 Since I started spending my winters in Rome, my mom pretty much decided that her February birthday would be as good an excuse as any to come for a visit. This year, however, she had figured out that coming in March would enable her to enjoy longer days and milder temperatures (One thing she had not factored in though, was the more sudden weather changes that come with early spring, as she learned the hard way upon her arrival. Oh well). 
Another decisive factor for the timing of her visit this year was the recital of French cellist Gautier Capuçon, an admittedly terrific musician she has been innocently stalking since his beginnings, with Frank Braley, his frequent music partner she is quite familiar with as well, last Saturday afternoon. Even better, the program featured the entire set of sonatas for cello and piano by no less than Ludwig van Beethoven and, seriously, who does not love Beethoven? 
Although La Sapienza’s Aula Magna is unfortunately no longer within walking distance from my Roman home, I was still looking forward to being back in its intimate space, never mind the proudly fascist decor. Just because these days I have been getting my classical music fix at the Auditorium Parco della Musica does not mean I have forgotten all the smaller but just as wonderful performances I attended on La Sapienza’s campus. 
So last Saturday, after a work-filled morning, an unplanned but yummy Nepalese lunch in my old neighborhood, and a leisurely visit of the always stunning and blissfully uncrowded Terme di Diocleziano, we found ourselves in very good seats in the packed Aula Magna auditorium for a concert we had started planning about six months before its actual date. 

And I am happy to say that it was all worth the wait. Having seen them perform together often in the past, my mom claimed that Capuçon and Braley, long-time buddies since their days at the Conservatoire de Paris, haven’t let their now prestigious and busy individual careers get in the way of the tight musical bond they share. And sure enough, their joy of playing together was immediately evident on Saturday as they first launched into, logically enough, Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 1 in F Major (Op. 5, No. 1). 
Fact is, the Cello Sonata Op. 5, No. 1, and Beethoven’s other early sonata, the Cello Sonata No. 2 in G Minor (Op. 5, No. 2), are not only delightful compositions, but they were also ground-breaking works that boldly (and finally) gave the cello its own voice. No longer stuck in the continuo instrument role where it had been languishing forever, the cello was now an equal partner, with all the excitement and responsibility, not to mention possibilities, that new-found status entailed. 
On Saturday, in the hands of the confirmed wizard that is Capuçon, the cello gorgeously expressed itself with expertly burnished tones and naturally dignified gravity. Not to be outdone, Braley made sure to display an equally virtuosic disposition, and handled his part with plenty of confidence and zest. Thanks to those two gentlemen, the Op. 5 sonatas sounded as fresh and inventive as they probably did when they first came out in 1796 and quickly made history. 
Book-ended by the two Op. 5 sonatas stood the Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major (Op. 102, No. 1), the first of the two late sonatas, the one that is sometimes called the “Free Sonata” due to its avant-garde structure. Yes, Beethoven was breaking new ground again in terms of innovation and complexity about two decades after his first cello sonatas, and the result was as awe-inspiring as ever. The only difference being that, unlike the unconventional late works’ occasionally confused and frustrated audiences, we happily gobbled it all up. 
The Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major (Op. 102, No. 2), which concluded Beethoven’s experiments with cello sonatas, and also wrapped up the official program on Saturday, is such a true marvel that it is no wonder the composer decided to quit the genre after he was done with it. Its most memorable feature is without a doubt the long and slow, and ever-changing, middle movement, in which the cello unabashedly and brilliantly takes the spotlight, before transitioning surprisingly and seamlessly into the glorious finale
Right before, the middle Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major (Op. 69), which is definitely the longest and arguably the most popular of the five, had opened the second part of the concert with the kind of brazenly heroic élan, and no real slowing down, that Beethoven would have loved. So much intense drama, so little time. That one could actually boast of being the most Beethovian of them all, and it would be mightily hard to disagree. 

Besides his superior musicianship, Capuçon is also well-known for being particularly generous when it comes to encores. Therefore, our hearts started to sink when, after a couple of rounds of effusive applause, the lights came back on in the concert hall, and people started to leave in droves. What??? Fortunately, the remaining few eventually got what we were all still dearly hoping for when, after finally settling down again, the duo treated us to an impeccably soaring, deeply soulful version of the perennially favorite “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thais. And that was all. And that was perfect.

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Debussy, Sibelius & Prokofiev - 02/24/24

Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune 
Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100 
Conductor: Paavo Järvi 
Violin: Augustin Hadelich 

After a short but very pleasant week in Naples, I came back to Rome with my friend Vittorio in tow as I was determined to do my darndest to reciprocate his superlative hospitality. Since he had been eager for a while to attend a concert in Parco della Musica’s admittedly wonderful auditorium Ennio Morricone, and his wishes are my commands, I had been looking for the right program at the right time. 
I eventually found it in the performance calendar of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the Parco’s resident ensemble and sure-fire guarantee of full satisfaction. Because, seriously, who wouldn’t go for an eclectic array of defining works from French, Finnish and Russian composers, a well-regarded Estonian-American conductor, and a highly acclaimed Italo-Germano-American violinist? 
So there we were, on Saturday evening at my usual 6:00 PM time, in the not quite full auditorium, a fact that might have been be explained by the unusual number of violin concertos presented within those walls lately. That said, the Sibelius is, as far as I am concerned, the one that stands above the abundance of richness that is the violin concerto repertoire, and any opportunity to hear it simply has to be grabbed. 

Frequently appearing on concert programs as the opener, Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune has the perfect length for the job indeed. But the 10-minute jewel is also well-known for its ethereal beauty and dreamy atmosphere, as well as its bold revolutionary nature, so it is no surprise that it is unfailingly such a big hit with audiences. And Saturday evening was no different as the orchestra created a timeless magical world overflowing with delicate exoticism, exquisite harmonies, and let’s not forget those gorgeous solos. It really never gets old. 
After having gratefully yielded to the hypnotic power of Debussy and his faun, we happily moved on to the equally hypnotic opening of Jean Sibelius’ violin concerto courtesy of Augustin Hadelich. I was thrilled when I first saw his name on the program because I had heard him superbly play that same piece in New York City a few years ago, and therefore knew we were in very good hands. And sure enough, on Saturday he proved one more time what an artlessly brilliant artist he is, handling the technical challenges with impressive ease and the emotional charge with unwavering commitment. 
We rewarded his bona fide tour de force with so much enthusiasm that he treated us to two unusual and thrilling encores, first his very own—and very fun—arrangement of Howdy Forrester’s Appalachian tune “the Wild Fiddler's Rag”, and then his instrumental version of the ever-popular Argentine tango song “Por una cabeza” (If you’ve watched The Scent of a Woman or Schindler’s List, you’ve definitely heard it, and probably loved it). 

I had honestly come to the concert for the first half of it and could have easily left at intermission totally satisfied. But then again, there’s no denying the appeal of Prokofiev’s music. Written within the span of an obviously very busy month, his fifth symphony shows an irrepressible spirit that was direly needed in 1944, and is unfortunately still direly needed today, since we apparently have not learned much in the past 80 years. 
Context aside, it is also an exciting wide-ranging composition that includes some not necessarily standard symphonic instruments like two harps and a piano, which ended up contributing lots of cool sounds to the overall experience. Add to that the restless creative mind of Prokofiev, and you have a sprawling work that is as profound as entertaining. The orchestra and guest conductor Paavo Järvi were obviously keen on doing it justice, all 45 minutes of it, and they fully succeeded. Just as I had at least partly succeeded in paying off my debt of gratitude.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Teatro di San Carlo - Don Giovanni - 02/18/24

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 
Librettist: Lorenzo da Ponte 
Conductor: Constantin Trinks 
Producer/Director: Mario Martone 
Don Giovanni: Andrzej Filonczyk 
Leporello: Krzysztof Baczyk 
Donna Anna: Roberta Mantegna 
Donna Elvira: Selene Zanetti 
Zerlina: Valentina Naforniţa 
Masetto: Pablo Ruiz 
Don Ottavio: Bekhzod Davronov 
The Commendatore: Antonio di Matteo 

As I am slowly but surely getting back into my routine after my wonderful Sicilian winter interlude, I noticed that, as if to make sure I cover all my usual hang-outs, my calendar had an opera performance at Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo scheduled a couple of weeks after a concert performance at Rome’s Parco della Musica, and not just any opera either because we’re talking about Mozart’s perennially irresistible (in so many ways) Don Giovanni
Of course, the pleasure of the company of my Napolitan friend Vittorio, not to mention the pleasure of his superlative cooking, are always worth the short trip down South anyway, but the added incentive of hearing Mozart’s ultimate masterpiece live in the prestigious setting of the San Carlo made the whole perspective even more exciting. 
Last, but certainly not least, the Don Giovanni du jour would be no less than meteorically rising Polish baritone Andrzej Filonczyk, a very capable and, let’s face it, very handsome, singer who had already made a good and lasting impression at the San Carlo as Filippo in Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda last September. I for one did not mind seeing (and hearing) him again. 
So last Sunday afternoon, after starting the morning with my usual trek up the Pedamentina di San Martino followed by one of Vittorio’s fabulous cappuccinos, which are famously topped by a serious layer of manually produced foam, we made it to Naples’ crowded and loud historic center for a quick spin around Piazza del Plebiscito before taking our excellent orchestra seats in the buzzing house that was filled to the brim. So good to be back! 

Whether Don Giovanni is more drama or more comedy can be argued ad infinitum (It has not been called a dramma giocoso for nothing), but one thing most opera buffs readily agree upon is that Mozart’s last opera is a bona fide masterpiece, in which the composer made exceptionally ingenious use of his uncommon artistic talent and newly found maturity. Who knows what other works he would have come up with, if it had not been for his untimely death? (Sigh). 
The title role is no doubt the challenge of a lifetime for any baritone, but Andrzej Filonczyk did not let that thought faze him. On Sunday, his Don Giovanni was more rambunctious kid in a candy store than highly experienced libertine, but the legendary insatiable appetite, as well as the smooth moves and the casual ruthlessness, were all there. In addition to his natural athleticism, his singing was clear, confident ,and engaging. This Don Giovanni had plenty of scoring power indeed. 
Polish bass Krzysztof Baczyk, an actor and singer of impeccable timing, was equally convincing as Don Giovanni’s long-suffering servant Leporello, never failing to bring some light touches of comic relief when things were getting a bit too tense. And the eagerly anticipated catalog aria, during which the constantly put-upon poor guy giddily detailed the content of his boss’ little black book, was the delightful treat we have all come to expect. 
The first of the three female leads to make an appearance is Donna Anna, who on Sunday was persuasively interpreted by Italian soprano Roberta Mantegna. Once she realized that Don Giovanni was the man who had raped her and murdered her father, revenge became her name, and there was no stopping her from having it. 
Stylishly clad in red and having clearly taken a page (or two) from the me-too playbook, Italian soprano Selene Zanetti was a proud and fierce Donna Elvira, frequently storming the stage with boundless energy and penetrating singing as she was hunting down the scoundrel who had seduced and abandoned her while introducing the other women to the joys of sisterhood. Hell had probably never had any fury like that particular woman scorned. 
To complete the trio of Don Giovanni’s leading ladies, Moldavian soprano Valentina Nafornita brought a genuinely graceful presence and extraordinarily agile singing to sweet and innocent Zerlina (Truth be told, I’ve always wondered how truly innocent Zerlina is). Her duet with Filonczyk in “Là ci darem la mano”, one of the most ethereally beautiful seduction songs ever, was a memorable moment of melodic bliss. 
Argentine tenor Pablo Ruiz made a strong Napolitan debut as an endearing Masetto, and Uzbek tenor Bekhzod Davronov was all steady loyalty as Don Ottavio. As the one who would have the last word, Italian bass Antonio di Matteo contributed supernatural force and cool resolve to the fateful figure of the Commendatore. 
With its refined mix of light and dark, and countless gorgeous melodies, Mozart’s masterful score needs no introduction. Our conductor for the evening was German maestro Constantin Trinks. Well-known for his expertise in Strauss and Wagner, he clearly demonstrated on Sunday that he could handle Mozart as well. As for the ever-dependable San Carlo orchestra, they also clearly demonstrated that they could handle Viennese fare as well as the more familiar Italian fare. 

If the cast boasted plenty of young singers, the production by eminent Italian film director and screenwriter Mario Martone was making its return to the San Carlo after premiering there 22 years ago. The decor consisted of an audience-facing tribune—part Elizabethan theater, part generic court of law—populated with characters and spectators that would progressively empty until it had only a few spooky corpses on it. Add to that a few clever props, some good-looking period costumes, and the occasional presence of the performers in the audience, and you have an endlessly adaptable staging, which obviously came in handy when updates had to be made to keep up with the last two decades. 
Unsurprisingly, some of those updates had to do with women's rights and the gender equality movement, such as when identical young women representing each country of the catalog aria showed up one by one to eventually dance like mechanical dolls around Donna Elvira. Or when Zerlina was playfully tying the hands of a more than willing Masetto’s with red ribbon while repeatedly begging him to beat her, which instantly turned the cringe-worthy request into a light-hearted display of women’s empowerment. 
Besides the openly feminist messages, the production should also be praised for its exquisitely composed tableaux, in which one could admire a carefully calibrated balance among attractive colors, compelling dynamics and extreme contrasts. The ball scene, for example, had the dancing take place behind the tribune under three fancy but not ostentatious chandeliers, so the audience knew what was going on without being overly distracted by it. 
Equally efficient in its eye-catching minimalist design, Don Giovanni’s last supper consisted of a few well-chosen props that conveyed both his aristocratic roots and his casual lifestyle. Even his demise at the hands of the Commendatore as they both stood at the top of the tribune dressed in ghostly white was swiftly carried out and niftily wrapped up with three fiery blasts of fire. Take that, Vesuvio! 

As if Don Giovanni’s endless tribulations were not enough, we also had to contend with an off-script real-life incident during intermission when an audience member fell on some steps while entering the orchestra section. But while the incident caused a localized commotion that required the presence of the San Carlo’s in-house doctor and the ever-present fire department, she apparently got back on her feet, and we all moved back to Don Giovanni’s eventful life and death without missing another beat. So much drama, so little time.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Verdi - 02/03/24

Giuseppe Verdi: Messa da Requiem 
Conductor: Antonio Pappano 
Tenor: SeokJong Baek
Mezzo-soprano: Elina Garanca 
Bass: Giorgi Manoshvili
Soprano: Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha 

Happily back in the Eternal city, which these days is compensating its biting cold with bright sunshine and, even more important, a significant decrease in mass tourism, I figured that I would get back into my routine by… getting back into my routine, which involves, among other things, spending quality time at the nearby Parco della Musica by attending the blissfully early and wonderfully satisfying 6:00 PM Saturday concerts of the ever-reliable orchestra and choir of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. When in Rome… 
In fact, as if to follow up on the Rigoletto I had very much enjoyed in Palermo two weeks earlier, the orchestra had scheduled Verdi’s magnificent Requiem for the week of my return to Rome. Even better, it would feature international star and personal favorite Elina Garanca, and rising star SeokJong Baek, whom I had heard good things about and had wanted to check out for a while. And it goes without saying that the presence of Antonio Pappano, the orchestra’s current music director and our conductor for the evening, was a solid guarantee of high quality. 
So, on Saturday evening, after yet another cold but sunny day, I took my seat in the middle of the very last row of the upper tier in the packed Sala Santa Cecilia for what is probably the only blazing opera version of the catholic funeral mass. The fact is, it takes no less than Verdi to compel most people to sit through the 90 minutes of it. And I was feeling very lucky to be there too, the entire three-concert series having sold out long ago. Those Romans sure know a good thing when they see one. 
Even before the music got going, we all knew it would be an extra-special evening when a large sign appeared above the stage and informed us that the performance was dedicated to Claudio Abbado, who passed away 10 years ago. One of the leading Italian conductors of his times, he had a very long, very deep and very fulfilling relationship with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. The Parco della Musica even acknowledged this special bond by naming its hanging gardens after him five years ago, and they’ve become a lovely de rigueur stop for any visitor. 

And then the music did get going, taking us on a daunting yet irresistible journey filled with overwhelming emotions, glorious melodies, violent contrasts, and plenty of intensely colorful drama, even in the most introspective moments. No matter how you look at it, death’s arrival has to be a little stressful, right? The composition is deliciously operatic in its breadth and tone, and blatant disregard of liturgical conventions, which may very well be why it has been so popular ever since its premiere in Milan in 1874 for the first-year anniversary of Manzoni’s death. 
The show-stopping highlight of the work is what is considered by many, me included, the most terrifying—and most terrific—Dies Irae of the entire canon. And sure enough, on Saturday evening, God’s thunderous wrath suddenly filled the large auditorium with tightly controlled whiplashing force and fury, each exciting recurrence of it bringing a new frisson of jubilation throughout the audience even as those episodes were progressively gaining in doubt and torment what they were losing in sheer horsepower. 
But Verdi’s Requiem does not revolve entirely around its extraordinary Dies Irae, it also offers many opportunities for the soloists to shine. And they did. An effortlessly regal vision in an elegant black gown and stylish hairstyle, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca quickly proved that she also has the chops to brilliantly carry out anything she sets her heart and mind on. With her trademark flawless articulation and superbly haunting tone, she nailed her part. Not to be outdone, young and fearless, and equally chic, South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha delivered a downright thrilling performance that soared to truly heavenly heights. You go, girl! 
South Korean baritone turned tenor SeokJong Baek and Georgian bass Giorgi Manoshvili were for sure worthy representants of the not so stronger sex, and they made the most of their moments in the spotlight with impeccable technique and laudable commitment. Baek showed that his bold transition to lyrical tenor had been highly successful; Manoshvili’s unflappable singing made us completely forget about the dashing singer but unwelcome Putin supporter Ildar Abdrazakov he was replacing. Those gentlemen may not have made quite the same dazzling impression as the ladies did (Who could?), but their commendable contributions were still much appreciated. 

Once the whole journey over, it is customary, not to mention necessary, for orchestra, choir, soloists and audience to take a short pause to catch one’s breath and go back to reality, unless of course you have some clueless or inconsiderate jerk who starts clapping right away, apparently relieved that the whole thing is done and over with, and they can leave at last. Lamentably, that’s what happened last Saturday, but the truth is, even this unfortunate ending could not break the magic of the evening. Maestro Abbado would have been pleased.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Teatro Massimo - Rigoletto - 01/21/24

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi 
Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave 
Director: John Turturro 
Conductor: Daniel Oren 
Rigoletto: Marco Caria 
Duke of Mantua: Ioan Hotea 
Gilda: Caterina Sala 
Sparafucile: Alexei Kulagin 
Maddalena: Valeria Girardello 
Count of Monterone: Nicolo Ceriani

Although Giuseppe Verdi may very well be my favorite opera composer, I have never been a huge fan of his perennial hit Rigoletto, mostly because I find the idea of a father even unwittingly having his daughter killed, or the idea of a tormented young woman sacrificing herself for her rapist, quite perturbing, and because I cannot really get past the blatant sexism of “La Donna è mobile” (I know, I know, the aria fits the Duke’s womanizing character like a glove and that’s what really what matters, but even the sheer perkiness of it never fails to annoy me). 
But then, as I was planning our trip to Palermo and checking its Teatro Massimo’s current season, I saw that it was the only opera performed there while my friend Vittorio and I would be in town, and we just could not miss an opportunity to check out the prestigious opera house, which I also incidentally learned is the third largest in Europe after Paris and London (Even King Umberto I apparently couldn’t help but wonder why it was so darn big). Extra bonus that tackled my curiosity even further: The six-year-old production was the first, and so far the only, foray of American and naturalized Italian actor and director John Turturro into opera. How about that? 
And that’s why, about 24 hours after an all-Tchaikovsky concert at the nearby populist Teatro Politeama, and another day spent feasting on mouth-watering food and eye-popping art, we moved on to the decidedly more elevated sphere (and three times as expensive orchestra seats) of the imposing indeed Teatro Massimo, its rather sober neoclassical exterior incorporating Greek columns and its much less sober late-Renaissance style auditorium, not to mention much-praised acoustics, by walking two blocks of local streets and crossing the buzzing (What else?) piazza Giuseppe Verdi, in pleasant dry weather this time. 

After a triumphant premiere at Venice’s La Fenice in 1851, Rigoletto has maintained a privileged spot in the hearts and minds of critics and audiences alike. Everybody seems to love it. The plot has also proved to be surprisingly versatile, and many versions of it have been concocted throughout the decades, including the Metropolitan Opera’s much talked-about endeavor relocating the action to 1960s Las Vegas and featuring Piotr Beczala and Diane Damrau. It started its highly successful run back in 2013, and I am still beating myself up for never having gotten around to checking it out despite repeated opportunities.
Back in Palermo last Sunday, Italian baritone Marco Caria looked and sounded totally at ease as Rigoletto, switching from merciless buffoon stopping at nothing to entertain his boss to tender father stopping at nothing to protect his virtuous daughter to ruthless murder stopping at nothing to exact his revenge on her tormentor. He had the vocal range and physical heft to handle the challenging part of the endearing anti-hero, and he had thrown himself into it (hunchbacked) body and soul. 
As Rigoletto’s beloved daughter Gilda, young Italian soprano Caterina Sala confidently displayed her conflicting emotions between heart and mind with achingly beautiful and remarkably expressive singing. You really felt for the girl, even if you also really wanted her to get a grip already. Her chemistry with Caria felt spontaneous and strong, and they eventually responded to our non-stop applause at the end of the second act by bestowing upon us a blazing encore of the duet “Si, revenge, tremenda revenge”. 
One of the worst scoundrels of the opera repertoire, the Duke of Mantua is also a particularly juicy character for any singer willing to sink his teeth into it. And young Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea sure did not hold back. Blessed with a powerful voice as well as boundless energy, he was an impetuous, remorseless tyrant obviously used to getting what he wanted by any means necessary and having a lot of fun in the process too. He handled his two eagerly anticipated arias “Questa e quella” and “La Donna è mobile” with precision and gusto, and an impeccably crisp clarion sound. 
The smaller but still significant parts were competently covered by the Russian bass Alexei Kulagin as a no-nonsense killer-for-hire Sparafucile, the Italian mezzo-soprano Valeria Girardello as a tantalizing and cold-blooded Maddalena, and the Italian baritone Nicolo Ceriani as a fiercely determined Count of Monterone. The men chorus, for their part, constituted an impressive bunch of decidedly unsavory courtiers, although their singing was definitely a treat to be savored. 

John Turturro may be well-known for his quirky roles, but this first opera production of his was generally low-key and essentially in line with the story’s original setting, even if special touches occasionally tried, and sometimes even managed, to spice things up a bit. For example, the first scene took place in an elegantly decadent castle, complete with a decaying decor and misty background, in which kind of grotesque-looking dancers donning high wigs and extra-wide skirts seemed to be dancing the end of an era away. While their presence was certainly justified during the opening party scene (What’s a party without dancers?), their return in the second act came out of nowhere and did not accomplish much besides bringing unnecessary confusion. 
Some visual choices were total winners though, like the large ensemble of scheming courtiers wearing black cloaks, white wigs, and cool black Windsor glasses à la John Lennon. Or the black-clothed shapes writhing on the ground while Gilda was dying, creating an eerie and arresting sight. Other decisions were less convincing, such as Gilda standing outside the sack that was supposed to contain her corpse but contained a red cloth instead, which was plain weird, or her slowly lifting her white skirt to show a red underskirt after her rape by the duke. Whether the fil rouge was meant to convey the loss of innocence, violence against women, or the curse of the Count of Monterone, who was wearing a similarly red outfit, it got to be a bit too heavy-handed. 
On an intentional or unintentional more light-hearted note, quite a few of the characters had what could only be described as a bad hair day on that stage: Gilda, whose angelic strawberry blond locks often reflected pale shades of pink, the duke, whose single curl on each side of his face remained stubbornly stiff despite his agitated life style, Sparafucile, whose few, long and greasy hair advertised his low life status from far and wide, and the Count of Monterone, whose elaborate white periwig quickly established his aristocratic roots and his old age, not to mention that his small part would have a big impact on everybody. 

Considered Verdi’s first real masterpiece by many, the stunning score, with its wide range of tones and textures, perfectly calibrated pace, gorgeous melodies and show-stopping arias, is a marvel not to be tampered with, and in fact eminent Israeli conductor Daniel Oren showed nothing but deep respect and understanding for it, from the intense dramatic peaks to the most poignant moments. The seriously competent orchestra sounded more than happy to have such exciting fare to work with and totally rose to the occasion, which resulted in a richly rewarding experience for all. 
So rewarding, in fact, that a shockingly high number of audience members did not hesitate to use their smartphones to take photos and make videos, as well as check on their personal affairs, during the performance, apparently keener on creating personal memories of it than on actually enjoying it or letting the rest of us enjoy it. 
And they wonder why attendance of live performances by true aficionados is dwindling...

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana - All-Tchaikovsky - 01/20/24

Piotr Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 
Piotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 
Conductor: Beatrice Venezi 
Violin: Stefan Milenkovich 

The quintessential Russian Romantic composer Piotr Tchaikovsky and the uniquely multi-cultural Italian island of Sicilia may not have a lot in common at first sight, but to me and my travel companion Vittorio, they are now forever connected as our first-ever visit to Palermo coincided with an all-Tchaikovsky program by the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana at the famed Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, which, with its neoclassical circular structure complete with slender columns and a triumphal arch crowned with a quadriga depicting “the triumph of Apollo and Euterpe”, is the city’s oldest and second most important concert hall after the Teatro Massimo. 
Although we were keeping relentlessly busy exploring the Sicilian capital’s seemingly endless parade of stunning historic and artistic treasures, as well as indulging in its seemingly endless supply of wonderful dishes, all of that in a climate even milder than Naples’, we simply had to jump at the chance of simultaneously treating our ears with gorgeous music, our eyes with a striking concert hall, and our feet with a blissful two-hour break at the convenient time of 5:30 PM last Saturday. 
But then, as if to make the occasion even more memorable, the ambivalent weather essentially gave up on us, and what should have been an uneventful walk turned into a dreadful obstacle course involving exasperating drizzle, unfamiliar territory, dark streets, slippery pavement, and a broken umbrella. Against all odds, we made it to the Politeama relatively unscathed, and were amply rewarded by our excellent orchestra seats in the large, attractive, if a bit run-down, space. 

Tchaikovsky’s highly popular violin concerto is without a doubt one of the very first compositions that made me fall in love with classical music. And what’s not to love about it? It’s big, it’s bold, and it’s beautiful. Although I’ve been lucky enough to hear it performed by some of the top violinists of our times, it had more or less disappeared from my concert-goer’s life these past few years, and it was high time to become reacquainted with it, a bit like catching up with an old friend I hadn’t heard from in a long time but was still very fond of. 
I must confess that I had never heard of Serbian violinist Stefan Milenkovich until last Saturday, probably because his impressive international career and no less impressive support of international humanitarian causes have not revolved extensively around the United States, despite stints at New York’s Juilliard School as student and teacher. Showing up in a long black coat with black spangles scintillating on top was certainly a sure-fire way to make an unforgettable first impression, but it quickly became clear that he did not need that kind of fashion statement to get noticed. 
His musical skills were indeed substantial enough to account for his having been tapped for one of the most exciting, but also one of the most challenging, violin concertos in the repertoire, and while his performance may not have been one of the most transcendent interpretations I have ever witnessed, his more restrained approach proved that there is more than one stairway to Tchaikovskian heaven. Reliably backed up by the respectable orchestra under the baton of young, petite, but unmistakably assertive Italian maestra Beatrice Venezi, he delivered the goods in spades. 
Encouraged by our enthusiastic clapping, Milenkovich came back for an encore that had nothing to do with Russian Romanticism but, as he pointed out himself  in Italian, was the only piece he could think of after Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece: The “Allemande” from Johannes Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2. And that's how the first part of the program was concluded with a poised and heartfelt take on the Baroque classic. 

More Tchaikovsky was on the way after intermission with his sprawling symphony No. 5, another perennial favorite of concert programs that I hadn’t heard in a long time, but that immediately reminded me why I got hooked on Tchaikovsky in the first place: The attention-grabbing opening fate motive, the wide range of themes, the luscious love song, the highly dramatic grand finale. Nonplussed by the size and complexity of her mission, Venezi led the orchestra through the 50-minute marathon with plenty of confidence and dynamism, appearing barely out of breath after having crossed the finish line. 

Our action-packed Saturday night was not over though, as we got caught in a vicious downpour upon exiting the concert hall, briefly got lost in the general dark and wet confusion, threw away the decidedly useless umbrella, and eventually took cover in a nearby hotel from where we waited for what seemed like ages for a taxi due to serious traffic jams, before making it to the apartment relatively unscathed again. 
After a brief and much needed respite, we started hearing loud dance music nearby, and realized that the usually quiet restaurant across the street had turned into a night club for a private party, which gave me an unexpected and not entirely welcome opportunity to relive my youth until midnight with the biggest hits of 1980s and 1990s. And then the rest of the night was (finally) silence.