Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Four

[The fourth of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at AllCityPhiladelphia.org, July 29th, 2015]

All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015

by Don Liuzzi

Juimagene 23rd – Perugia
Since again, there is no possibility of performing for the Pope, we stick to the schedule, and get on the buses for the 9AM departure. Everyone is ready with their luggage and instruments. We must take everything with us… the real tour is beginning NOW!

We are heading into one of my favorite “ragione nel Italia” – Umbria. This is the first mountainous area outside of Rome, heading to the northeast. Each town has a basso centro (more modern lower altitude town centers near train stations) and an alto centro where the old “fortress” section of each city sits, usually with an old castle at the top – a “rocco di majore”. We pass by a number of these Umbria towns – Orvieto (where we will visit at the end), Spoleto, Assisi (the site of our 2nd concert) and finally the capital of the Umbria region, Perugia. The day is sunny yet with more humidity and wind swept clouds blowing in from the south. I am excited to get to the “alto cita Perugia” area at the top of the hill.

This is our first day of distributing lunch money in Euros. We will test the lunch market in Perugia. To get from the bus area to the old city, we take steps and an escalator through catacomb like passages – old tunnels perhaps from ancient city walls. We see our first poster advertising our 1st concert here in Perugia, to be held at San Lorenzo cathedral. Everyone takes pictures of the poster in the glass case!

We emerge up at the old city. The main Corso will head straight to the San Lorenzo Cathedrale.

Students in smaller groups with chaperones are exploring the shops and pizza bistros. Outdoor seating at ristorantes lends itself to relaxed lunches for several student groups from ACO. My wife and I have fabulous pizza, then walk the narrow ancient streets with bridged archways of old homes. We get to an overlook that gives a view of valleys and mountains beyond, plus a view of the extension of the old city where the famed university lies. (Lots of students are in Perugia… a major part of its population).

We have a deadline to rendezvous with the buses so we can all check in to our hotel, rest a bit, and change into our concert outfits, then head back for the sound check. Our hotel is called the Choco Hotel… and has sculptures of chocolate in the lobby – the lobby actually smells like chocolate! (Perugia is famous for it!).

We get back on the buses at 6:45 and head to the church for the 1st load-in of instruments and stands. Let’s see how smoothly our organization can run!

We get inside the church…it is HUGE with a sound-echo delay of over 6 seconds! This will be a challenge for the concert! We work hard to set up the orchestra–Chaperone Margaret especially–in charge of the seating! Holly gets the music out; the percussionists are setting up; the stage crew led so nobly by Brian Ewing, Mike Franchetti and Darren Lynch is madly at work to get the basses and cellos in as well as the timpani… our 1st taste of loading in and setting up in a timely manner.

I decide that chamber music will definitely be a part of our evening: brass and percussion in front of the church will begin at 8:30 pm (it’s still light out then) and inside will be woodwind quintet and finally Bruckner’s Ave Maria, sung by 10 students. We will set up our banners to help promote this 1st concert.

First, in our sound check, we try our music… the echo time delay is HUGE to deal with! I tell the students that fermati will be long, to let sound die away as much as possible. As concert time gets closer I tell the chamber music outside to start, while I busy myself trying to find a bathroom. Alas, there is ONE bathroom in the entire church available for 117 musicians… the line is long!

I put my scores in order as the final strains of Ave Maria waft towards the back of the church. The Bruckner Ave Maria in that huge acoustic sounds INCREDIBLE. What a heavenly way to introduce the orchestra concert!image

The crowd is not huge, but decent for such a small town. My wife and I met a couple from New Jersey earlier in the day, looking at our poster. They are there. About 150-200 people are in the seats to enjoy the concert. A few of the rowdy students on the church steps enter to listen a bit, But John Feenan, one of our tough Philly cops is there to encourage quiet listening or scram!

The concert commences with Berlioz and William Tell, but we have to omit Danse Bacchanale. No drunken bacchanals in a church setting! We replace it with Verdi’s Nabucco. The trombone choir and resulting ultra-long grand pauses are laughable in their length, to let the sound die away! I am very pleased how the orchestra is playing in such an acoustic — a bit lighter, less heavy, shorter sounds, and off the string — really listening in such a bath of an acoustic.

We get to the middle of our program – Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in Italian with Councilwoman Teresa Severini as the narrator. As no rehearsal time was available with her, I quietly tell her to look for my hand cue to BEGIN speaking, and when I touch her arm, she should STOP speaking… We understand each other, (though my Italian is barely understandable to her, I realize). Before we start the piece, she reads the entire narration for the audience… something, though not asked for, that makes sense for the Italian listeners to grasp the importance of the words. Before she gets up to start narrating in the actual performance, she is visibly moved by the powerful music and the playing. Amazingly, although she gets ahead a bit, she stretches out the final words to coincide with the powerful music. Her ending monologue/dialogue with the orchestra is excellent. Not bad for no rehearsal!

Joe Conyers’ subsequent Lyric for Strings in such an acoustic is velvety smooth and PERFECT. We finish the concert with Tchaikovsky, Finlandia (with HUGELY LONG GRAND PAUSES), and Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. But as we are to start La Forza, I see no score… I look for Holly, but she is buried in the back of the church, and she can’t find the score when she is asked… I shrug and jump into the overture and whisper to the students to me help get through the overture with no score!! Hmmm….it works… I remember all the main cues…. (I should try this more often without a score!!) Then we launch into 3 encores: Cinema Paradiso, West Side Story and finally Mambo, which ends up being the weirdest experience in such an acoustic – a mish mash of sound, but we finish it with a flourish and are done!

First concert thrillingly over… audience adores it… Councilwoman Severini makes a heartfelt speech, first in Italian then English. She is very moved at the end of the concert, congratulates us during the standing ovation, and then deliveries a beautiful gift of exquisite poster photos of Perugia to both Joe and me. We are moved by her warmth. Audience members introduce themselves… some Italian, some American Italians visiting – all very moved.

Now… after the thrill of having the concert go so well, we have a big pack-up to do. We finish in 30 minutes and walk back to our buses. One of the cellists slips on the cobble stone street and twists an ankle. Rebecca, our nurse, is there to wrap his ankle up, and we all make it back to our “choco” hotel… The entire orchestra is famished, so we order 50 pizzas to share as a bedtime “snack”. We then are off to our beds to rest up for concert #2 … in Assisi!!

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