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Ionarts in Siena: Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

The 64th Settimana Musicale Senese came to a close on Saturday night in Siena's Chiesa di Sant'Agostino. Conductor Antonio Pappano led the orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in a program that combined two rather different halves in a challenging and satisfying concert. The first half was devoted to a landmark of the late 20th century, Luciano Berio's chimeric Sinfonia for eight voices and orchestra. Composed in several stages from 1967 to 1969, this piece is in one sense a recapitulation and analysis of the symphonic genre; at the same time, Berio refracted his main source, Gustav Mahler's second symphony, through a kaleidoscopic prism of modernist literature, other musical classics (Bach, Beethoven, Strauss, other Mahler, etc.), anthropology, and the turbulent current events of the late 1960s. The eight vocal parts were performed here by the the latest incarnation of the Swingle Singers, for whom the piece was created and who sang under Leonard Bernstein in the premiere performance, in honor of the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic in 1968.

64th Settimana Musicale Senese:

Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (July 14)

Concerto Italiano, Monteverdi's Orfeo (July 11)

Cappella della Pietà de' Turchini (July 10)

Fabio Vacchi, La Madre del Mostro (July 8)
The eight singers, the piano, and other instruments were picked up by microphones, which created the appearance of an electronic production, reminiscent of musique concrète. The Swingle Singers mostly created glistening dissonant chords in close harmonic arrangements or added to the chaotic effects of the orchestra by whispering or shouting. The first tenor -- the part sung by Ward Swingle, the group's founder -- recited most of the narration, drawn from Claude-Lévi Strauss's Le cru et le cuit, a study of Brazilian traditional mythology relating to the origin of water, and Samuel Beckett's L'Innommable. From the third movement on, there is also English commentary on the experience of listening to Sinfonia -- "it's a compulsory show," "perhaps it is a recitation, someone reciting selected passages," and "waiting for it to start -- that is the show."

The postmodern attitude, deconstructing the work and the listener's possible experiences of it, is made specific with references to the citations of the Resurrection symphony ("there was even for a moment a chance of resurrection") and with the words directed to the conductor at the close of the fourth movement ("Thank you, Mr. Antonio Pappano"). It could be characterized as the dialogue of voices inside a puzzled listener's head or like a berserk color commentary on the action. For all of its thorny problems of interpretation, the piece received a sensitive and vibrant performance in Pappano's hands, in spite of the size and awkward placement of the orchestra (part of the ensemble had to be seated off the stage in front of the audience). Some listeners may not find connecting with Sinfonia easy, however -- my concert companion was reviled with a passion both intellectual and visceral. To sweeten the taste, the Swingles gave two delicious encores: a jazzy arrangement of Bella ciao ("Una mattina mi son svegliato"), a famous post-WWII song, and a rather silly arrangement of Mozart's Rondo alla Turca.

Perugino (Pietro Vannucci), Crucifixion, Chiesa di Sant'Agostino, Siena
The second half was devoted to another work that had a long genesis, Rossini's Stabat mater dolorosa, completed in two major periods. If anything, the overall polish of this performance may have suffered ever so slightly in rehearsal time because of the complexity of the Berio. Although there were some moments lacking true unity among the extensive forces, it was a very satisfying performance. The Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia was excellent, a large chorus that maintained a good control of soft dynamics and was impressively unified in intonation, attack, and diction, for which Maestro del Coro Norbert Balatsch took a much-deserved bow. Soprano Emma Bell and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato were an appropriately matched pair in their Duetto ("Quis est homo"), with the thick, duskier hue of the soprano voice tending toward the mezzo sound. DiDonato showed her mastery in the gorgeous Cavatina, with impressive control of soft dynamics, nicely followed by the orchestra, and breath support on those long notes.

Bass Ildar Abdrazakov was resonant and suave in his Aria ("Pro peccatis suae gentis") and the startling recitative dialogue with the chorus ("Eja, Mater, fons amoris"), a performance that makes me keen to hear his Don Giovanni with Washington National Opera next season. One can only congratulate and thank tenor Colin Lee, who stepped in to replace the indisposed Lawrence Brownlee. The Santa Cecilia orchestra again played well, with meaty brass in the Duetto, plaintive solo oboe lines, and an exciting "Inflammatus et accensus" movement, complete with revelatory trumpets for the sounds of the Last Judgment. A nice musicological touch came in the celebrated Quartetto movement, in which Ms. Bell sang a small modification of her part, notated in the score of Clara Novello at an early performance of the Stabat mater in Bologna. Although Donizetti conducted that performance, Rossini oversaw it and, moved by Ms. Novello's singing, added a little gilding to the lily. As described in the excellent essay by Guido Burchi in the program, Novello's score is now in the Fondo Gigliucci of the Accademia Musicale Chigiana's library in Siena.

Concerts continue throughout August, in Siena and nearby towns, in the 76th Estate Musicale Chigiana, including performances by violinist Giuliano Carmignola (July 21), harpsichordist Christophe Rousset (August 1), cellist Antonio Meneses (August 3), and pianist Maurizio Pollini (August 12). Reviews will be forthcoming until Ionarts is constrained to leave Italy.

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