Yesterday Sarie and two friends played in a Baroque concert in a Neo-Gothic castle south of Torino. All week I’d imagined the trio playing in a dark stone tower with arrow slits for windows and gray walls practically oozing damp from the predicted rain. But instead we found ourselves in the garden, in a warm, sunny Neo-Classical greenhouse overlooking a classic Italian patchwork plain of light industry and farms. I could hear horses neighing below.
Admittedly, we didn’t know until the last possible minute how we were going to get there. The initial transportation plans morphed quite a bit, so that in the end we found ourselves asking the conductor on the train where we needed to change trains and then get off. Sarie and I traveled with the group’s oboist, Alberto, who met us at Porta Nuova station wearing a trench coat and fretting about the oboe’s sensitivity to rain and cold. (Reeds are pretty touchy.) The conversation on the train ranged from English to Italian and Piemontese, and touched on Chinese and Elvish.
The ostensible plan was to meet another conservatory student, Bruno, at the closest station to the castle. Bruno had planned–or not planned–the whole thing, since he was a tour guide at the castle. As we walked out of the station and stood in a small traffic circle, the town looked closed and deserted. But at just that moment, I heard a revving motor and a compact car came speeding towards us. It swerved around the traffic circle by the station and came to a neat stop. Out jumped a young man with slightly longish dark hair, Ray-Bans, bright red chinos, and the smile and posture of an extrovert. Upon meeting Bruno, I began to forgive Italy, for the four-thousandth time, for its lack of organization as compared to New York. It was hard to become angry with someone who was so genuinely affable.
We all climbed into the two-door car with our bags and instruments, and Bruno speed through the narrow streets of two small towns, accelerating over bumps and turning into alleys briefly to stop short in front of notable churches on the way to the castle at Roccolo. The entire conversation was conducted in a combination of lightning-fast Italian and Piemontese, but Sarie and I understood some of it.
Once at the castle, Bruno gave us a quick tour of the grounds and then the musicians got to work setting things up in the greenhouse. Occasionally they would jokingly refer to the arrival of the “green coffin.” This was the virginal that Matteo, the other member of the trio, was bringing to play basso continuo on. When Matteo and his father drove up, I got the joke: The main component on the virginal was a long box with a lid, the size of a coffin, and it arrived in a station wagon of adequate dimensions for a hearse. When it arrived, the musicians (by now all dressed in black), went to remove it from the back of the car. In no time they had it set up and tuned, even though the bottom key stuck all through the concert. The keyboard contained only four octaves.
At a few minutes before 4:00, a number of middle-aged couples materialized, while the group decided, at the very last minute of course, how to introduce themselves. Bruno had disappeared. In the end, Alberto did an excellent job. It seems that Italians have a talent for making extemporaneous speeches. The rest of the concert (which was actually Telemann, Buxtehude and others, with no Monteverdi whatsoever) went off without a hitch, notwithstanding Alberto’s banging on the oboe between movements and his protestations that it was behaving horribly.
During the concert, I tried not to be overly-concerned that a co-worker of Bob’s, who was to give us a ride home, had not yet arrived. Towards the end of the third of the four pieces, however, I was relieved to see Carolina and her husband enter and take a seat at the back.
After the concert, we all walked around the grounds some more and toured the open rooms of the castle, which housed a short history exhibit. Built in 1831, the castle had belonged to the Duke of Azeglio. Queen Margherita of Italy had been a guest, and this being a Romantic castle, it was of course rumored to have its own ghost. The few parts of the castle proper we saw were dark and crumbling and only half-restored. And by this time, it was indeed raining after all, causing many of our group to make spontaneous references to Wuthering Heights. Carolina had even read it in English.
On the way home, Carolina was most entertaining. Facing backwards the entire trip, she spoke to us in Italian, and we replied in English whenever we got stuck (more often for me than for Sarie). She tried to think of not-too-difficult books for me to read in Italian. She recommended various friends and relatives to help Bob get his Italian driver’s license and to get Sarie through the piano portion of her conservatory program. Her husband was quieter, but would occasionally chip in a phrase or two in English with a booming voice and a hint of a smile. His contributions were always apt.
When I mentioned that I had no idea what we were going to have for dinner, Carolina spouted off a whole week’s worth of instructions for quick meals. My favorite: Fettucine Alfredo. Fry up some cubed pancetta while you boil the pasta. When the pasta is done, add it to the pancetta while bringing over a little bit of the cooking water. Then break in one fresh egg per person and stir. She was all for taking me to Eataly (which is open on Sunday!) as we arrived back in town, so she could show me the best cuts of veal. But I realized that if even if you have a quick dinner idea, shopping adds to the prep time, and it was already going on eight. So after I remembered a quick vegetable combo that I could spoon over mozzarella toast, I declined. But we have plans to go shopping just as soon as we both have a Saturday free!
I have to admit that, as I started the day, I had been very tired and a little irritated at how I almost didn’t get to go, at how we would have to rush to the train and wouldn’t have time for lunch, at how Bob was sick and needed to work instead of going, that our promised bus had turned out to be non-existent, and that the way that the musicians got paid their small honorarium, predictably, involved a lot of paperwork.
But in the end, the serendipity more than made up for the annoyances. Even though we’re not fluent Italian speakers (I’m pretty awful), we made new friends. We saw and heard a portable virginal, got to walk around the elegant castle grounds (which reminded Sarie and me independently of the Cloisters in Manhattan), and the kids had a lot of fun playing Baroque music. And since the whole thing was their idea to begin with, I think this was the best part of all.