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Toscanini's Shadows

Newspaper Review:

Gail Wein, Filarmonica's Delicious Orchestral Mix (Washington Post, October 13)
Monday's Columbus Day concert (October 11) at the Kennedy Center, organized with the help of (among others) the Italian Embassy and Italian Cultural Institute, was the first time the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini played in the United States. Conducting that troupe was their new Music Director, Lorin Maazel, in a program of popular Italian overtures, intermezzos, and then, for the second half, the Ottorino Respighi tone poems Fontane di Roma and Pini di Roma, the two more famous and popular ones of the Roman Trilogy that also includes Feste Romane. Between current and former ambassadors, cultural attachés, every Italian over 50 and under 25 in the D.C. area seems to have been present, making for a large, lively, and interesting crowd. Maazel is no stranger to these pieces: indeed, he has two of his finer recordings feature Respighi: one with the Cleveland Orchestra (1976, on Decca Legends, without Fontane) and another with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (1996, on Sony with the complete trilogy and demonstration class sound).

Before the concert, the Chairman of the Fondazione Arturo Toscanini, Antonio de Rosa, gave a slightly political speech (in Italian) with invocations of the connections between Italy and the U.S., from Columbus himself to Toscanini. Ministers and officials were duly thanked, all while the constant feedback from his and his translators' microphone drove every well-eared person half-mad.

The completely incomprehensible program notes (translated from Italian? They made Japanese instruction manuals seem like fine reading) were no great help in finding out about the Filarmonica, other than it being the principal orchestral body in the Emilia Romagna region. (For a little geography refresher, that's the northern Italian region around Bologna and Parma, stretching across almost all of Italy from west to east, located just south of Venezia with Verona, Padua, and Venice, Lombardy with Milano and Brescia, and north of Tuscany with Florence, as well as the principality of San Marino.) The orchestra resides in Parma, in the Sugar Factory cum Concert Hall Auditorium Niccolò Paganini, designed by Renzo Piano (follow link for pictures), who is also responsible for the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome, a three-building dream in sheet metal, concrete, and wood.

Under a fastidious baton like Maazel's—just what an Italian orchestra needs—the young orchestra (barely 10 years old) seems to have a good chance at becoming Italy's least bad non-operatic orchestra. This may sound like an unnecessarily snarky comment, but it is in fact Italy's cultural sore spot, that she does not have any good symphonic orchestras amid a cultural landscape of the world's finest conductors (Abbado père et fils, Pappano, Muti, Giulini, Noseda), composers (Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Nino Rota, Giacomo Manzoni, Bruno Maderna), early music groups (Rinaldo Alessandrini's Concerto Italiano and Fabio Bionidi's Europa Galante, to name only two) and soloists (Maurizio Pollini, Salvatore Accardo, et al.). It may not provide the entire answer to this conundrum, but I suggest watching Frederico Fellini's Orchestra Rehearsal for some (hilarious) suggestions as to why that might be.

The first half of the program was naturally popular with its luscious La Forza del Destino overture (Verdi), the moving Manon Lescaut intermezzo (Puccini), the march-like evergreen overture from Rossini's La Gazza Ladra (the name may be unfamiliar, the music you've heard many times), Verdi's robust Otello Dances, Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo (which had a charming Wagnerian glimmer), and the sturdy I Vespri Siciliani overture (Verdi, again). I cannot deny that I rather like my Verdi & Co. in that bon-bon format, though I'll grant every Verdi-lover due offense at those words.) The audience thanked Lorin Maazel and the orchestra for that half with enthusiastic applause, standing ovations, and bravos.

I first heard Fontane di Roma, the second half's first piece, and its siblings a good many years ago on a radio broadcast and wasn't particularly enchanted. A dozen years and several recordings later, I am still not quite convinced. I wish I could say that now, after Maestro Maazel's live performance I know why it is so immensely popular and so prolifically recorded... but I can't. It was certainly the best time I've ever had with these works: to hear Maazel coax the band into delivering its best sound of the evening, fat, deeply roaring brass and luminous string textures, lively woodwinds... But in part it still eludes me, and certain sections sound (dare I say it?!) like high-class Disney film music to me. Perhaps that is just a sign that it is indeed a very effective tone poem?

Pini di Roma (those pines take on the grandeur that I might more readily assign to German oaks) is more impressive, still, but it, too, has its long parts of which I cannot makes much sense. I find it—no doubt due to some deficiency of my own—episodic and like a soundtrack to an unshown movie. The superimposed, unsubtle bird chirping over the speaker system probably didn't help much to ameliorate this impression, either. The roaring and simply awesome finale (cheap and loud effects? Maybe... so what?!), however, made one forget all of it. No wonder I've never created that sense of awe at home: were I to play it at the appropriate volume, I would get an eviction notice within half a dozen bars, or so! Needless to say, it brought everyone to their feet at the conclusion.

The encore, announced by Maestro Maazel, was the overture to Verdi's Luisa Miller. A very quaint way to end an enjoyably popular concert by such a good, aspiring Italian orchestra.

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