Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Eight

[The ninth of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at AllCityPhiladelphia.org, August 7th, 2015]

All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015

by Don Liuzzi

June 27 – Florence We have our final concert ahead of us. I realize our run-out trip to Florence will be a long day… The Uffizi Medici Palace Museum will be first, followed by a big sit-down lunch/final meal with the whole group, then a walking tour of the immediate Florence area, including a walk over Ponte Vecchio. My eye is on the big Piazza del Signoria – the weather seems to be good, which is a huge relief.

We depart the buses alongside the Arno River and see the Ponte Vecchio, as we over a bridge just south of the famed OLD bridge. As soon as we cross the river it is apparent we are in a crowded city. We pass local artists painting and hawking their work. We put our instruments and clothing bags in a waiting room, to be gathered much later in the afternoon.

The museum has several floors… Gretchen and I head for the Giotto room where a very important Madonna and Child painting is on display. To get up close to the Giotto painted eyes of the Madonna, to see their warmth and quiet joy, is to see the impetus and flowering of the Renaissance up close. There is the Botticelli room with his contemporaries… stunning details in the religious icons, though there is an influx of interesting images within these later Madonna and Child paintings.

Blair Kidd makes some very insightful observations on these strange details – the head of a bull, a mouse, an untied shoe, etc… Some of these details are pretty “strange” according to Blair (violin), and she is right. The addition of darker “human” details to these “religious” paintings was a kind of “reality check” to these religious-themed paintings. Some of those details are a bit disconcerting, almost scary, in some cases funny, and perhaps all meant to be so… ah, the human scene!

After an hour, we get museum exhaustion and head for the outdoor terrace where we get an up-close view of the Duomo and Palace fortress. Gretchen takes a few photos, and we realize we are last to leave the museum… We scurry down to the street level and fortunately find a sea of red Phillies t-shirts about 100 yards ahead of us. We hurry along to be with the group, heading for our final lunch together.

It is a nice restaurant. The service is rather slow, but that is ok. We have plenty of time to eat and relax before the day really picks up again. I am busy finalizing my list of titles for each of the chaperones that I will announce after lunch. My eventual announcement of every chaperone’s title is met with lots of laughs and clapping… EVERYONE realizes how hard the chaperones have worked on this tour. The biggest cheer is saved for Margie Keefe, as I dub her ‘The Madonna and Mother of us All.’ She has been the organizing engine of this whole tour.

I finish my speaking with a kind of pep talk. It is a “we-are-at-the-end-but-don’t-lose-your-energy” speech, as we will likely have a big crowd hear us this evening. I then ask them to WATCH my conducting gestures more closely for musical cues, such as dynamics, smoothness or precision, vibrato for the strings… even this gesture with the left hand… I touch my thumb and middle finger… ”Got Eem!” I say, to a big laugh and a rousing cheer… An undisclosed source had told me of this game which all of the kids know. Wow… that was fun!

It is after 3PM… time to get ready for our walking tour of Florence. We are guided to the Duomo (Cathedral) Santa Maria del Fiore, and walk by the Baptistry, famous for its HUGE bronze sculpted doors. We walk past various piazzas getting a smattering of historical bits and pieces of Florence’s past and why it became such a Renaissance center of power (through its textile industry essentially). The wealth begot great architecture, art and music.

We walk over the Ponte Vecchio, briefly eyeing jewelers row on the bridge. I look up to the sky… It is getting quite dark and cloudy. A few drops of rain hit my face. I ask Gerardo about the forecast. He says the shower is brief and the evening weather looks fine. Still, I mentally plead for the clouds to MOVE.

We make it back to the Piazza del Signoria, with the life-sized copy of David, and the actual sculptures of the Rape of Sabines, the Persius beheading of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (almost as famous as Michelangelo), and other significant sculptures. We will perform next to, and under these statutes on a kind of open porch, called the Loggia del Lanzi, overlooking the Piazza. Quite a setting for a concert!

Chairs are being set up, the sound system with various mics spread strategically through the orchestra. Lights are being hung, as it will be a night concert. Firenze Orchestre Giovanili (FOG) banners are up, and we are about to play what I am very certain will be a GREAT start for their 2015 summer concert series.

Veronica and the other staff from FOG introduce me to the evening’s narrator. He is the president of FOG, a musicologist, composer and educator. His name is Mario Rufini, a man with a warm smile and a very pleasant affect. We huddle over the score and his Italian translation. He asks for a copy go the score and I give him an extra. We review the pauses and times to flow… This will be a good performance.

Our sound check includes Copland, and even some last minute fine tuning of La Forza del Destino. The strings are REALLY getting close now, especially on that exposed unison run that plunges down and rises up. (Any string player reading this will know what I am referring to.) We also check Berlioz, which we have not played in a few days, and Danse Bachannale.

People are gathering in the piazza to listen to our soundcheck. The sky is clearing… a good crowd should gather for the concert. We need a harp check. The mic on the harp is not strong enough. We play through the opening of Swan Lake and the harp now comes to life in the sound system. This will be a nice evening for the harp to be heard! Our sound man, a somewhat taciturn older Italian gentleman, actually seems to know what he is doing, as Brian and Joseph report to me that the sound is balanced and quite good out in the big Piazza.

Start time inches closer. The students have already changed into their concert attire. The FOG folks ask about maybe a bit of chamber music just before concert time… I thought chamber music would be too difficult in such a huge Piazza without amplification, but I rethink and we organize the jazz group and the percussion ensemble to play from 9:00 to 9:15 as a teaser for the crowd. They play well, with great spirit… Then we wait for the sound guy to show up. The lighting tech guy doesn’t know where he is, but he tells me he can turn it all on as long as the mics and equalizations are set from the sound check. It is already close to 9:30, so I say – “Let’s get going!”

We tune, and the FOG officials make an opening speech. Then we launch into the Berlioz and it goes very well – best yet. Then we plow through William Tellto the delight of the large crowd… over a thousand at this point I am told. The cellos perform very very well, but I am perplexed as a first violinist leaves her seat.

In my effort to keep the concert flowing, I again forget to give the cello section a bow. I have some apologizing to do! Emma’s English horn solo and Hannah’s flue solo are stellar as usual, and the strings are especially listening well to their rhythmic nuances.

The missing violinist returns to her seat for Saints Saens Danse Bacchanale. I ask her if she’s ok, and she says she is fine. I find out later it was a brief bloody nose attended to well by John K and Luigi. I realize during Saints Saens that the lighting is not very good. I look to the lighting guy at the sound table and ask where is all the lighting?!? It turns out some of it is not plugged in. The lighting is adjusted and quickly all in place.

Danse Bachannale soars and we are into our final “roll” of pieces in our last concert. We perform the Copland works… After the lovely Variations, played with the best panache and power of any of the concerts, we jump into Lincoln Portrait. Mario is excellent, though the score I gave him is not helping him as much as he had hoped. He quickly turns back to his narration translation and relies on my cues. The orchestral quality of this final Lincoln Portrait is the highest of the tour, I feel… All the solos are excellent, and the trumpet duets perfect. The horns’ muted/stopped after-beats are right on. Martina’s horn solo is sweet as usual, and Ariannis’ trombone solo is fantastic – her best solo of the tour.

After the two Coplands, Joe conducts a beautiful rendition of Lyric for Strings. We then plow into Tchaikovsky Swan Lake and Jordan sounds gorgeous on the harp…. The whole ensemble playing in both Tchaikovsky movements is really responsive. We are moving together better than ever. Next is Finlandia, and the playing is simply excellent – The brass is FULL, the woodwinds sweetly in tune, the strings rich with gusto. Anthony, on cymbals, is very solid, and Denzel rocks the piazza with his timpani rolls!

We are now ready for our final regular program work – La Forza del Destino. This taut Verdi requires focused energetic playing from all sections, and I am thrilled with this last rendition of the Forza. The brass starts solidly, and the strings are READY with the dancing 3/8 drama. The solo woodwinds lovely, and the low celli and trombone rhythms are excellent. That wicked unison string passage that rages down-then up is the best of the tour. The harp and glock section with the delicate triplets in the violins goes really well… and that is tough music!!

The crowd ROARS after the rousing Verdi… I am ready to plow into the encores, but I see vehement shaking of heads from the FOG officials. It is close to 11PM, and overtime for the chair crew from the city is a no-no. I quickly decide… Ok, then let’s end this tour with a Mambo! We plow through a rousing rendition with abandon… The crowd roars!

One more? Kids in the crowded piazza are launching glow-in-the-dark mini rockets, which are floating and falling through the air all over the square. Liberty March would be a a great closer, but again I look at the anxious FOG folks who are looking at their watches. We must stop. The final concert is triumphantly… but sadly… over.

There is much packing to do. The cellos must be turned in, and the percussion instruments packed to be returned. The banners are packed away, pictures are taken, lightening is now flashing distantly in the sky, and the first few raindrops begin to fall… What timing!

We make our way to the buses along the Arno. We come upon some young Italian students playing in the street by the river, covered by a terrace roof. They are GOOD…actually terrific, and the All City students are intrigued. They want to stay and listen, or take out their violins and play along! It is late… raindrops coming faster, so we pile into the buses… happy, a bit wet, exhausted, and ready for those nice Montecatini beds!

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