Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Six

[The seventh of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at, August 3rd, 2015]

All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015

by Don Liuzzi

June 25th – Montecatini via Siena
The morning is bright, and CALM. This bodes well for tonight’s concert in Montecatini, which will be at the Terme Tettuccio, a kind of arts park, a 19th century version of an ancient Roman bath house. Montecatini, in the heart of Tuscany, was (and still is to some degree) a destination for special bath waters, to drink and to bathe in for good health. We won’t have time to test out the healing waters of Montecatini, but we will play a full concert there, and use Montecatini as a base for the next three nights.

We load up the buses, and the extra van has been hired to carry our 14 celli, the trombones, and extensive percussion. We depart our Choco Hotel home in Perugia. I wish I had bought some Perugian chocolate… darn it!

We’re leaving Umbria and heading to Tuscany, where we will visit the historic city of Siena, a town steeped in medieval and early Renaissance traditions. I spent one night there, years ago. Georgiy, our alum principal cellist, is ecstatic to return to his musical summer home, having participated in the annual Siena music festival. Our time there though will be brief: an hour long walking tour, time to learn about Siena’s patron Saint Catherine and see her thumb and head enshrined in St. Catherine’s Cathedral… a bit gruesome I must admit.

It turns out Catherine was quite the follower and spiritual leader of the church in that era, and she was integral to the return of the Papacy from Avignon, France to Rome. Her death at the age of 33 was in a sense intentional, in her effort to follow Christ as she believed she should – maybe a bit too literal?

imageThe day is hot as we leave St Catherine’s church to explore the streets and alleyways of Siena. We will have one more church to visit – the gorgeous Duomo, which was built intentionally to outdo the Duomo of Florence. The intention was to be bigger, but when they expanded the existing foundation, they mistakenly built on a slope with unsettled ground… The expansion of the Duomo in the 1400’s never happened, but the inside (and outside) of the rest of it is incredibly beautiful. How many ways and how many different kinds of marble can be used in a building! The whole church is a Gothic marble sculptural wonder.

The most interesting part of the Duomo tour for me is the “library” whose frescoes are imagewell preserved and whose library contents are displayed beautifully in glass cases: Benedictine monks wrote out books of Plain Song by hand, in full developed Neume notation. My freshman theory teacher at Peabody would have been ecstatic. I hum a few bars of plain song tunes, which I memorized when I was required to sing in front of theory class 37 years ago. “Victimae pau-scouli laudes… Immolent Christ Anni,” and my other favorites, “Tantum ergo sacramentum, veni-re-nu-ce-nui-i-i…” phyrygian mode – so haunting… and the mixolydian joyful “Panis Angelicus… dat panis ho-minum… dat panis geli-cum, figuris ho-minum… O resmi ma bilis, man ducat dominum, pauper servus, et humilis… A-A-A-men.”  Being in this church and seeing these original musical scroll books has certainly jogged my memory!

We leave the Duomo and end up in the main square called “Il Campo” with its towering watch tower overlooking the open square. Il Campo is the site of the biannual horse race. Each neighborhood of Siena has its own flag, and its own patron animal – pig, rhinoceros, hen, you name it… and the horse racing competition is quite fierce. THOUSANDS attend these races, and we are fortunately not here at race time… There are enough tourists everywhere though—this is definitely a tourist town.

imageWe split up into groups to grab lunch. My wife and I have a wonderful Tuscan pasta con salada mista. A bit pricy… but well prepared. We all meet up again at the Il Campo to head to the buses to finish our journey to Montecatini. The sun is scorching and there is nowhere in the square for shade. Lots of gelato is eaten. Teresa, one of our guides, has sun burnt tops of her feet. I shade them as she calls ahead for confirmation of our next Copland narrator. My memory of Siena’s physical beauty was confirmed with this “stop by” visit of two and a half hours.

After another hour of bus travel we arrive at the gentle town of Montecatini. As most towns dating back to medieval times, there is an Alto Montecatini, but we are in the 19th Century Basso Montecatini.

imageOur hotel is a wonder. The Grand Hotel du Park et Regina dates back to those 19th Century times, perfectly restored and modernized. (Think “Grand Budapest Hotel” on a slightly smaller scale!) This will be a nice home for the next three nights. The room ceilings are high, there is an “original” (open cage) style elevator, and the ambience is quite elegant.

We settle into our rooms, then enjoy dinner. The food at this hotel is certainly a step up from the Perugia and Rome hotels. The pasta is excellent, and the chicken very well prepared. We are well fed before we all head over across the street and eventually into the Terme Tettuccio park.

imageThe setting is absolutely elegant, a large courtyard with marble everywhere… floors, columns, statues, walls… with no roof. It is an enclosed imitation of a Roman bath house, without the bath. (That’s at a different location.) The 19th Century creation of this marble park is accentuated by a 19th Century era horse buggy, seemingly incongruent to the look of an ancient Roman bath house.

I help set up the orchestra chairs. Percussion is placed towards the open hallway leading to the gardens. We place our standing banners in the appropriate places–one by the entrance to the park and one in front of the orchestra to the side. We begin to rehearse… touch the Verdis, and then meet our narrator, Professore Guiseppe Tavanti, who teaches music history at the nearby Leoncavallo Conservatory.

He is VERY well prepared, has enlarged his Italian translation, and we confirm the spots in the text to wait for the music. The rehearsal of the Copland goes smoothly. The sound in the open plaza of marble, even without a roof, will be quite good and natural.

We have about 45 minutes before concert time, and the chamber music will begin shortly. First, a new addition – a jazz group consisting of Isaiah on alto sax, Marcus on bass, Jake on trumpet, Travis on brushes and a cymbal, and Denzel on xylophone ( …too bad there is no vibraphone on hand.) They play a standard, and are very good! (I should not have been surprised.) Then the brass quintet plays a work, followed by the woodwind quintet playing their first performance of Puccini’s Tosca excerpt, ending with the heavenly Bruckner Ave Maria. The chamber music component of this tour is turning out to be a wonderful and perfect prelude to each concert. (Only the windy Assisi concert had no chamber music… it was too risky there!)

The concert starts…We drop the Berlioz, and start right in with William Tell. As the evening progresses, the lighting provided has invited lots of evening bugs. I see that the lights’ beams are quite full of swarming gnats and other critters… I am hopeful it is not a burden to the performing students. (I find out later that the principal trumpet Leonard had to swallow a fly when taking a breath–ugh!!–and that the insects were annoying to all the orchestra members… sigh… At least we had no wind!)

The concert progresses, and the Copland Lincoln Portrait is read with great timing and understanding. At its conclusion, we have Maestro Prof Tavanti take a bow, and he thanks the audience, followed by a surprise visit from the Mayor (I think) wearing a sachet of white, red and green—the colors of the Italian flag—diagonally across his torso. He is happy to officially welcome us to Montecatini. Then Veronica takes him aside and reminds him to mention that Firenze Orchestre Giovanili is the presenter. She makes sure he thanks THEM for the concert.

imageWe continue, and play our ENTIRE rep, including all our encores. When I announce Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso, I hear an audible gasp/sigh of joy from a front row audience member. It goes very well… the best performance of the work yet. We slide quickly into West Side Story selections, then into Mambo…and finally our first performance of Liberty Bell March, which proves to be a huge hit as the audience claps along. I decide to try conducting the clapping with some dynamics in the melodic phrase. The audience complies joyfully. This is turning into some serious fun! I am very happy as the concert ends… This is the best the orchestra has played in all of my 10 years.

I am greeted by a lovely older gentleman, a community concert band director and retired music teacher. He is deeply appreciative of the concert… I am grateful for his praise, and I express my appreciation in stumbling Italian. Another woman is gushing with praise for the wonderful talent and diversity of the orchestra members – “nero, bianco, giallo, molti differente tipo de studenti nel orchestre!” I say, “Si, e bella, e quella e America!” (Yes it’s beautiful and that is America!)

I remember the lovely interactions and autograph signings in Perugia… The supportive and joyous receptions we have had at each concert, the Assisi crowd that deeply appreciated our efforts to persevere in the wind, along with Father Martin’s joyful attendance.

I can’t wait for the final two concerts in Lucca and Florence, to see what the music will bring! We pack up and pass through the gates of the park, right across from our hotel… All sleep SOUNDLY.


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