[The fifth of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at AllCityPhiladelphia.org, July 31st, 2015]
All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015
by Don Liuzzi
June 24th – Assisi
The night must have had a big rain, for when I go out after breakfast to get some Euros at a “Banco-mat,” there are puddles of rain water, and the fresh morning breeze with crystal blue sky means a weather front has passed. I am excited for the clear weather, which means we are to have our 1st outdoor concert this coming evening without a weather hitch – or so I think!
We board the buses with instruments, but not luggage, as this is a “runout” where we will return to our Choco Hotel late in the evening. The Umbria landscape continues to roll before us as we head 40 minutes southwest–actually slightly back towards Rome–which is significant because, although no one else knows this, the previous night and early this morning Mr. Machos, Mr. Conyers and I have made a last ditch effort to return to Rome to play briefly for the Pope, as the Philadelphia Committee for the Pope’s visit is finally all there today to have an early afternoon audience with him.
We receive word at 7:30AM that it will not be possible… Oh well, his loss and their’s, but it would have made for a truly complex day to run back to Rome, then make it back in time for our 6PM concert in Assisi.
“Alto” Assisi is truly one of the gems of Umbria (and all of Italy). It has a Rocco Castello Majore (castle) at the top of the mountain, as well as one of the religious and artistic wonders of the world in the San Francesco Basilica, with all the 13th Century frescoes of Giotto, that revolutionary painter of his day, who humanized painting for the centuries to come. And it has that small town sense that time has passed it by, in the most positive of ways.
We take on its pace – peaceful, gentle, with the sun as our gentle clock. Gretchen and I join a couple of small groups of students and chaperones to explore the sunny alleyways that meander through the town… up and down…For a brief time we think of heading to the castle. It turns out that we have ascended a road leading in a different direction, which becomes a dirt path, but it offers stunning views of the valley below.
We double back to our concert site in the square at San Rufino, and I decide to check on the wind gusts in the performing area in front of the church. The wind gusts might effect us less if we hug the corner, angling slightly outward in a kind diagonal view of the piazza. I am banking on the winds dying down around sunset. Gretchen and I go off separately to explore and to hunt for a good “panini” shop. Or walk takes us to an incredible overlook into the valley below. There is a horse farm at the foot of towering hills, with a few puffy clouds sailing over the tall peaks. The air is cool and I am concerned about strength of the wind… but, again, on a fresh breezy day such as this, a sunset will often calm the gusts down – I hope for our concert’s sake.
The homes in alto vecchio, (old) Assisi, are perfectly kept. We meander peacefully past honeysuckle and bougainvillea flowers draped out of windows and along ancient walls, until we find a small panini shop. It is empty, with only the owner and his wife and baby inside. We order panini with hunks of fresh mozzarella, pomodori (tomatoes) and, prosciutto (thinly sliced salted ham) drizzled generously with GREAT olive oil. In the words of Chaperone Brian Ewing (we’ve turned Brian and his minions onto the panini shop) this is the “best damn ham & cheese sandwich on the planet.”
We lunch at the perfect spot, sitting at the edge of a garden wall, next to plum trees rustling in the breezes, against a backdrop of wispy cloud headed mountains. This is my first “yes, I am at Italy’s pace” moment.
Now we have to make our way to the other end of town, to the Francesco Basilica, for our guided tour of the famous cathedral. Along the way we take pictures of students posing in front of gelateria stores. We shop a bit and have our first gelato of the tour. My favorite flavor is now “cocco” (coconut) – WOW!!!
We finally arrive for our 3:30 meeting at the base of the Basilica, where Teresa and Yaelle are waiting for us with their yellow umbrella. Hmm… I wonder if that is an Italian word!
Each of our bus groups will tour separately, guided by one of the monks. Bus #3 meets Brother Martin, and we instantly fall in love with him. This guy (from New York) is both very funny AND quite profound… quite a combination. Though we are in a church, a number of us can’t help but crack up over his running commentary, accompanied by his laser pointed perusal of the art. His narration of Saint Francis’ holy life, depicted in the paintings by Giotto and others, is moving, compelling, and hilarious.
Saint Francis’ practice of Christianity was a profound return to a simple and pure faith. His inclusion of nature and animals as expressions of the Divine echo throughout our tour of the church and the town itself. We take a group picture with Brother Martin in front of the Basilica. Gretchen and I invite him to our evening concert, and he is eager to attend.
The BIG group picture gets taken just to the side of the Basilica… Vanessa carefully gathers us all (117 students and conductors) on the steps leading down to the lower road and lower Basilica entrance. It is a stunning setting for a group shot… as stunning as the one in front of St Peters two days earlier.
After the pictures are taken we need to get moving towards the San Rufino church. The buses are close by, so we board them quickly and head to the other end of the alto vecchio cita to set up for sound check and the 6 p.m. concert.
Coming Next: The infamous “Don with the Wind” Concert in Assisi