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When music is a candle in the dark

When music is a candle in the dark

August 24
03:26 2018

In the soaring baroque church of San Francesco in Lerici, on Italy’s Ligurian coast, an enchanting and ambitious summer festival of music and poetry began in silence. The minute’s reflection was for those who had died only two days before, when the Morandi bridge collapsed in the provincial capital, Genoa. Yet the international soloists performing Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle — an unusual but, as it turned out, apposite opening concert — embraced the piece’s operatic drama and quirkiness, while offering mellifluous solace to a community in mourning.

Music’s power as a “universal language” spurred the pianist and conductor Gianluca Marcianò to found the Suoni dal Golfo (Sounds of the Bay) festival in his hometown last year. Lerici, whose hilltop medieval castle provides a dramatic venue for some of the festival’s events, is on La Spezia Bay — known since the 1900s as the Bay of Poets for its inspiration to poets and music-lovers from Dante and Petrarch to Wagner and DH Lawrence. The English writer found the “massive blue sea”, and cliffside houses painted pink, russet and ochre, “so beautiful, it almost hurts”.

“What made them love this place?” Marcianò gestures rhetorically from a café terrace beside the bay. “You get a sense of protection because it’s a gulf, and beauty. It’s small, but the sea gives grandeur and the sound of the waves. It’s a place for reflection and meditation.” He hopes the coast where he learned to play the piano, and to swim, will inspire other musicians, including the festival’s five composers in residence, and 65 emerging young players from five continents in the Orchestra Excellence.

The two-week festival, which continues until August 31, has 60 soloists in 40 concerts. Those I heard ranged from a rousingly popular “Cinema and Tango” evening of Ennio Morricone and Astor Piazzolla, with the bandoneon soloist Mario Stefano Pietrodarchi, to mezzo-soprano Jelena Končar’s intimate recital of Rossini arias, accompanied by Marcianò, in a vaulted chamber of the castle.

‘Cinema and Tango’ event

Some concerts are inspired by the poets who were drawn here. The villa that Percy Bysshe Shelley rented in 1822 (now a boutique hotel) is set back from the sea but, 200 years ago, was lapped by waves. It was to here that Shelley was returning when his boat hit a squall, leaving his body to wash ashore. The festival opening on August 16 coincided with the anniversary of his cremation on a beach, Lord Byron looking on. Byron’s blank-verse tragedy about the “brave though voluptuous” last Assyrian king, written the previous year, was the basis for Franz Liszt’s unfinished Italianate opera Sardanapalo, whose restored first act has its Italian premiere on August 27, in the landscape where it was conceived.

Shelley was a revolutionary poet for whom art and politics were enmeshed. Marcianò’s own inspiration is his work in former conflict zones, from the Balkans to the Caucasus. I last saw him conducting Verdi’s Un Ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera in the UK in June. But he is back in the former Yugoslavia as principal conductor of the Serbian National Theatre in Novi Sad, while based in Yerevan (married to an Armenian violinist). Yet the spur was Myrna Bustani’s Al-Bustan festival in Beirut, where Marcianò has been artistic director since 2010. Its persistence through civil war not only overcame his own reluctance to tackle Italian bureaucracy, but also shaped his views on music as a force to “make a difference”. For him, music is an “instrument of cultural diplomacy”, a “universal language that can take you anywhere”.

The tranquillity of the Italian Riviera might make it an unlikely setting for an initiative whose aim is partly to reshape damaged and divided societies through music. Yet for centuries, Lerici was on the front line between the warring city-states of Pisa and Genoa. In this heavily fortified Ligurian landscape, poets could be peacemakers. Dante Alighieri, while in exile from Florence, brokered a treaty in 1306 between warring Ligurian clans that is still celebrated each year. “Dante was a great diplomat,” Marcianò says.

Pianist Lavinia Bertulli

Marcianò’s belief that music “can make people understand things, and change minds” found confirmation in contrasting recitals by two piano virtuosi. Angelo Villani’s tempestuous rendering of Liszt’s suicidal character Obermann, weathering a storm to emerge with a renewed love of life, carried hints of autobiography — Villani, a former child prodigy in Australia, suffered a hand injury that took him three decades to recover from. César Correa’s marriage of Chopin with Afro-Peruvian jazz, Latin baroque and salsa was an exhilarating tribute to mestizo creativity. But the Peruvian pianist’s power to evoke through music an entire history of devastation also recalled Abdullah Ibrahim’s way with township jazz.

Marcianò relishes the “different sensibilities” that these soloists bring to bear. “One, intimate, almost nostalgic. The other, the pure, impure spirit of Latin America: full of colours and rhythm, and contaminated by European structures — so open to the world.”

Another revelatory performance was the world premiere of a viola concerto by the Tajik composer Tolib-khon Shakhidi, its haunting, fragmentary melodies rising above harsh dissonance. The soloist Maxim Novikov, who trained at the Moscow conservatory and is the festival’s co-artistic director, also played the premiere of an unfinished viola suite by Shakhidi’s teacher, Aram Khachaturian, in a version for viola and orchestra. The piece was discovered only six years ago by the composer’s son.

Novikov, whose second career as an orchestra manager began with the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra when he was in his twenties, co-founded the Orchestra Excellence with Marcianò, inviting musicians under 35 to audition via YouTube. The orchestra includes students of the Damascus conservatoire, many of whose tutors fled after civil war started in 2011. Lauren Almosfi, a violinist, regards the festival repertoire as “hard but beautiful”. A member of three orchestras in Damascus, including the Syrian National Orchestra, she says that, even during the worst fighting, “we kept playing. Not one orchestra stopped.”

Another ensemble defying the pull of conflict is the Polyphony Quartet, which will make its debut in Lerici’s castle. Its young Palestinian Israeli musicians from Nazareth’s Polyphony Conservatory and Jewish Israeli players from the Jerusalem Music Centre are part of a far-reaching programme to combat inequality and division through music education from kindergarten to conservatory. Its founder, the violinist Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar — an alumnus of the Said-Barenboim West-Eastern Divan Orchestra— tells me, “The last few years have shown we can’t wait for politicians to push things in the right direction. This leaves organisations like Polyphony to do the grassroots work, and make a difference on the ground.”

For Novikov, music’s power to reach people makes it less diplomacy and more “open-heart surgery”. Or, he reflects on the castle roof at night, the bay picked out in lights, “Music is like a candle. How do you fight darkness? You can’t shoot at it. But by playing music, you’re doing something against the dark.”;

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