On Wednesday night, Washington Performing Arts Society opened its fall season with a spectacular concert by the La Scala Philharmonic. Notably it did so not at the Kennedy Center, which has long been the organization's main venue, but at the newer and growing Music Center at Strathmore. In spite of the suburban location, which doubled this disgruntled city dweller's car trip, a VIP box at house left held such distinguished guests as First Lady Laura Bush (but thankfully not her husband, whose presence would have created a security nightmare), the Ambassador of Italy to the United States, the American ambassador to Italy, the Mayor of Milan, and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Financial support from Bracco and other partners made possible a glossy, deluxe program, with Italian and English texts in parallel, both for the Strathmore concert and for the entire La Scala Philharmonic North American tour.
Lawrence B. Johnson, La Scala orchestra leaves a listener pining (Detroit News, October 8)
John von Rhein, La Scala brings freshness to its heritage (Chicago Tribune, October 9)
John Terauds, Talent sparkles on silver anniversary (Toronto Star, October 10)
Robert Everett-Green, A luxury Italian voyage with a commanding Canadian tenor on board (Toronto Globe and Mail, October 11)
Tim Page, That's Italian! La Scala Philharmonic Scores at Strathmore (Washington Post, October 12)
It is important to train one's ears to the world's best orchestras to have the proper perspective on what we hear regularly in Washington, in both the concert hall and the opera house. Sadly, attendance on Wednesday was less than full, with a number of empty seats toward the back and sides of the floor. The Filarmonica della Scala is the resident orchestra of Milan's celebrated opera house, an orchestra further established 25 years ago this year as a touring ensemble led by the world's most celebrated conductors, in the footsteps of the group that used to bear the name of Arturo Toscanini. Their esteemed conductor, Riccardo Chailly, was in our area most recently with his other ensemble, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. In my preview of this concert, the programming came across as a little conservative. Indeed, when you think about what we could have heard -- Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder along with sections of Lohengrin and Die Walküre, all sung by tenor Ben Heppner -- it makes Rossini's William Tell overture, as nice as it is, look rather weak. Who would not rather have a little slice of Il Teatro alla Scala in his backyard?
The high point of the program was the suite of music for La Strada by Nino Rota, the Milanese film composer roughly equal, in terms of esteem and sheer output, to John Williams. Conceived for Fellini's film of that name in the 1950s, Rota adapted the score for a ballet commissioned by none other than La Scala and premiered there in 1966. Rota's particular genius was the evocation of moods and characterization, and this score is an example of his chameleonic power, in this case to create a sonic portrait of the lunacy and tragedy of a circus on the road. Dancing on a handsome red podium (brought from La Scala and seen in some of his press photos), Chailly led the ensemble in a brilliant performance, from the suite's raucous opening through imitations of Latin jazz and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The forte playing blew your socks off, and the subtle touches of irony -- like the hilarious flute-tuba duet -- never became overly bitter or sarcastic. The work ends in an atonal style, with striking masses of discordant, bass-heavy sound.
Pine of Rome
Photo of the Cortile della Pigna, Vatican Museum,
with the colossal bronze pine cone
found in the Baths of Agrippa
"His face appeared to me as long and broad
as is, in Rome, the pine cone at St. Peter's,
his other parts as large in like degree,
so that the bank, which hid him like an apron
from his middle downwards, still showed
so much of him above that quite in vain
three Frieslanders might boast of having reached
his hair. For I saw thirty spans of him
beneath the place where men make fast their cloaks."
-- Dante, Inferno 31, lines 58-66, trans. Robert Hollander, courtesy of the Princeton Dante Project
Since when did the Milanese think that Rome was so great? The program went from the Roman director Fellini to Roman fountains and Roman pines, in the late Romantic tone poems by Ottorino Respighi. Cut from harmonic cloth quite similar to the Rota, both pieces are sonorous program works given an optimal reading by the La Scala group, from the atmospheric haze and bubbling water of the fountains to the piped-in nightingale recording to the Imperial Roman fantasy at the end of the Pines of Rome. My initial worry about these popular pieces was about how they might be handled by a less brilliant conductor. With his broad smile and delighted boy antics, Chailly encouraged the players and created with them readings of these familiar works that were revelatory and incendiary. In another example of putting new wine into old bottles, Chailly opened the concert with the overture to Rossini's William Tell. Has any piece of music spawned so many recognizable themes? Even so, did the music forever associated with The Lone Ranger ever seem as new? For good measure, there were two substantial and very welcome operatic encores: the Intermezzo from Puccini's Manon Lescaut and the overture to Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani.
La Filarmonica della Scala concludes its North American tour this weekend, with performance in Philadelphia (October 12), Carnegie Hall (October 13), and near Ground Zero at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden (October 14). Three more visiting orchestras are on the WPAS schedule this month: the Cleveland Orchestra (October 15), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (with Yefim Bronfman, October 18), and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (with Julia Fischer, October 23). Then Murray Perahia inaugurates the new Piano Masters Series (October 28).