(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Category: music

Another Passion excerpt

Here’s a new, recently-released excerpt from Alberto’s Passion According to St. John, performed April 25-26th of this year. It’s the finale. I’ve also inserted it into my original excerpts post, so they’ll all be in one place.

If you were a fund contributor and wonder where your recording is, they are still waiting on someone who promised to help them do the job. And that person too has a job. This is the way things happen in Italy sometimes, especially when you don’t have much money, but it will eventually get done!

A catechism in frescoes, along with chaconnes

IMG_0318

Yesterday Sarie and I drove to Bastia Mondovì, about an hour away in the Langhe region south of Torino, so that she could play in a concert entitled L’Età delle ciaconne (Age of the Chaconne, which is the 17th century). The ensemble included two Baroque violins, a Baroque cello, a theorbo, and a harpsichord.

First a word about the music: The chaconne derives from a Spanish dance and has a distinctive basso continuo line that encourages improvisation. You can hear an example of one such line (which varies somewhat depending on the piece) in one of my favorite Monteverdi madrigals, Zefiro torna. La Folia is another common chaconne and may be one of the oldest European musical themes on record. If you know the Suzuki violin books, you’ve probably heard a basic version by Corelli.

Anyway, the rehearsal started early in the afternoon, and the church wasn’t within walking distance of the town, but I didn’t mind hanging around, because there were frescoes. Shortly after I had taken a preliminary look around, a docent arrived with a group and started a guided tour, and soon I found myself listening in. What I discovered was that the walls were a veritable catechism, with surprisingly empathetic lessons for the people of 15th century Bastia.

To begin with, the church of San Fiorenzo* is named after a Roman soldier from the Theban legion who survived an imperial massacre of Christian troops in the third century, came to Piemonte, preached to the people in the Roman crossroads settlement which once occupied the vicinity, and was eventually martyred and buried on the spot where the original church stood. An archeological excavation in the 18th century uncovered an early grave upon which the original church was built.

The tomb of San Fiorenzo became associated with miracles and attracted pilgrims, especially the lame (maybe they had some help?). In fact, when the saint’s tomb was discovered, it was said that the locals had to cart away three loads of no-longer-needed crutches!

The history of the site is complex and shrouded in the mists of time, but we know that a small Romanesque church on the site was expanded and renovated beyond the point of recognition, and was eventually placed into the care of the noble Della Torre family, who commissioned the main fresco cycles. They were not only rich, but genuinely pious, which may be one reason for the particularly free expression in some of the frescoes.

During the 18th century excavations, a Baroque side chapel (painted pastel blue and pink, glimpses below) and a pink bell tower were added, but since they aren’t very visible from the nave, they don’t intrude much into the rustic warmth of the main part of the church.

IMG_0320

Some of the frescoes from the original Romanesque church (part of which has now been demolished) are still visible on the walls just outside the presbytery of the present church. In the foreground you can plainly recognize an image of St. Christopher, patron saint of pilgrims, by the Christ’s child’s foot draped over his shoulder. There are also traces of older frescoes inside, along the back wall of the presbytery.

These outdoor frescoes are just outside the right hand wall in the photos of the rehearsal below. Now let’s start our tour of the inside. But first, let’s note that intricately decorated period instruments are a nice addition to the already warm ambience of the church, especially when they are playing!

IMG_0324IMG_0321IMG_0363

All the later frescoes are in what is now called the Gothic Alpine style, and they have iconographic and aesthetic cousins in many other area churches. The artists’ identities are uncertain, but there seem to have been more than one.

In the photos above you can see the presbytery, which has the most elegant and best preserved of the frescoes. One reason for the superior preservation is that the artists used lapis lazuli instead of vegetable dye for the deep blue of the late medieval heavens. The black skies you see in the photos below were once a similar shade of blue, but they have since oxidized. Another reason for superior preservation may be that the presbytery has windows to allow in light and warmth. In fact, all the frescoes on that (southwestern) side of the church are generally in much better shape than those on the other side. The other side is facing uphill and would have accumulated more snow as well.

The middle fresco along the back of the presbytery shows San Fiorenzo and San Martino (the patron saint of Bastia) with the Virgin and Child. The Virgin in the Crucifixion scene above is being held up in the shape of a cross because she is sharing in her Son’s sufferings, as prophesied by Simeon in the temple. There are several other themes on these walls, including a large panel of St. George and the dragon. Underneath the back wall you can also see remnants of an earlier fresco cycle.

Surrounding the groin vault above the presbytery are the Four Evangelists. Two are sitting together because the fourth panel has an image of Christ Pantocrator (ruler) blessing their work. If you look closely, you will notice that one of the two young evangelists sitting together (Luke) is left-handed. This is pretty unusual when you consider that, according to the superstition of the time, left-handedness was from the devil. I quickly formed my own theory that the fresco looked more balanced with each evangelist’s outer arm resting on the table, but still, someone must have noticed that Luke was a mancino and allowed it. A quick Google search brought up some tantalizing hints that showing Luke as left-handed was an iconographic tradition.

Above the arch just outside the presbytery is the Annunciation, and below it, Saints Dominic and Francis (shown in the brown habit on the right), who as founders of the two main mendicant orders of the day and opponents of a heresy common in the area, were “pillars” of the church. I particularly liked the free and beautiful brushwork on the cloth below St. Francis’ feet.

On the inside of the archway are Saints Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria, who are patrons of childbirth and lactation. So women, as well as the left-handed, had sympathetic intercessors near the altar. But even these woman saints are dressed as nobles, because that’s what the people would have expected.

IMG_0348 (1)

As you travel down the right side of the nave from Saint Francis, along the southwestern wall, there is a series of frescoes representing the life and miracles of San Fiorenzo. The scene above depicts an episode in which the people of Bastia prayed for intercession from San Fiorenzo against a plague of serpents and wild boars (both real threats). The saint is shown above the white Alban hills announcing to the people that God wants to save them. A particular type of eagle native to the region, recognizable by its protected lidded eyes, came and killed the serpents. (I love the arrow-straight pinwheel formation of eagle feathers!) In additional to a literal interpretation of the episode, the local literature allows for a couple of different metaphorical interpretations, one involving a local invasion of Saracens and another involving an outbreak of the plague. This story may even be superimposing a later San Fiorenzo onto the earlier one. But the tradition is so old by now that it’s hard to tell.

IMG_0359Version 2

The next cycle is the depiction of Heaven and Hell, complete with the works of mercy based on the Gospel of Matthew (the detail above shows feeding the sick and burying the dead) and the seven deadly sins. You can see the orderly nature of The New Jerusalem in the first photo, which I included to give some idea of the context. The central scene is the Coronation of the Virgin, in which the placement of each saint along the sides has its significance. If you click to enlarge the image, you can see that music in Heaven is also played on period instruments! I’m sure Sarie and her friends would approve. In fact, the church once hosted a concert played on the kinds of instruments shown in the frescoes.

Heavenly order would have appealed greatly to the people of the 15th century, but many contemporary visitors are fascinated with the chaotic depiction of Hell, which includes a monstrous Satan devouring some local magistrates and lawyers, the French and Milanese butting heads, and even some errant clergy. Some of these representations are derived from literature, but they may have also served as a reassuring message directed toward the common folk of Bastia–Don’t fret when corrupt rulers prosper! Our guide, who grew up in the area and occasionally attended this church as a child, said none of the kids she knew wanted to sit near the Hell cycle. They all sat up front! I don’t blame them.

I chose this depiction of Envy to represent the Hell cycle. She is wearing green, of course, and she has no face of her own, because she always wants to be someone else. The animal she is riding on is labeled as a leopard, but it looks more like a monkey, no doubt because the painter was simply told that a leopard is an exotic African animal. What amused me was that the leopard/monkey’s face looked so much like Gollum’s!

IMG_0330

The next cycle, which I didn’t take photos of because of the dark, depicts the life of St. Anthony the Hermit. He is often depicted in churches of the period because outbreaks of St. Anthony’s fire** (ergot poisoning), a hideous toxicity caused by grain fungus, were at their height. The monks of his order were particularly successful in treating it.

Along the back wall are Biblical and traditional scenes from the birth and infancy of Christ. In the nativity scene, St. Joseph seems to be outside the stable enjoying a bowl of soup while the Blessed Virgin is on her knees adoring the Christ Child, to whom she has just given birth. The guide had a more sympathetic explanation: He is fixing her some chicken broth, a natural antibiotic, and the particular cheese hanging from the stable is also known for its antibiotic properties. A nearby scene, a legend involving the Flight into Egypt, shows the Christ Child picking his mother some dates off of a palm tree (once again, the artist wasn’t so knowledgeable about his exotics), as a worried looking St. Joseph, carrying an empty food pot, looks on. I really like these tender and sympathetic depictions of Jesus’ earthly father.

And finally, below, I’ve included one panel from the Passion of Christ (from the damaged northeastern wall). It depicts Christ’s appearance before the high priest, who is tearing his robe according to the gospel account. In the tradition of the time, the face of a saint (and especially the Son of God) would often be painted in a very refined, almost feminine manner, while the face of a villain would be exaggeratedly ugly. A quick glance at the faces of Christ and the soldiers confirms this. In the Crowning with Thorns scene a couple of panels down, a man with a goiter appears in the doorway, about to join the mockers. He is a local piemontese, malnourished from eating mostly polenta.

If you want to see more frescoes, click here and here.

IMG_0333IMG_032811879040_1067683629910573_1209834129431944187_o

(This last photo of the rehearsal was taken by the harpsichordist’s father, whom I only know by his last name, Stefanelli.)

At the end of the tour, I went back to my seat at the front pew and watched the rehearsal, refreshed by a breeze that came into the side door near the San Fiorenzo frescoes. The little church soon filled with some very literate present day locals, and the historical concert, presenting music from two-hundred years after the fresco cycle, began. The music, the warm evening colors, and the stories behind the frescoes, all combined to create a serendipitous evening. And then the musicians and their parents went out for salumi, fresh tomini,  purée di tonnoinsalata russa, gnocchi alla bava, and good company.

*In most of this post, I’ve translated the names of the saints into English. But since I don’t know of an English translation for Fiorenzo (Florentius, maybe? Florence?), I just left it! And then it just seemed silly to write St. Martin next to San Fiorenzo, so I left that too…

**Confusingly, another well-known St. Anthony, the Franciscan St. Anthony of Padua, also died of ergotism.

Passion excerpts

Hi! I said before that I’d post some excerpts from the Passion performances when they became available, so here they are! The first is two minutes from the first chorus. It builds slowly and then bursts into song. The second is excerpts from the entire hour-and-a-half performance, put into a montage. In the second video, you can also see more closeups. Enjoy!

Sept. 15 update: I’ve added another just-released excerpt. It will have its own post, but I’m putting it here too so they’ll all be in one place.

Quick update about the concerts

11141205_1661599974067854_2784071255920066274_n

Baroque ensemble Aurea Armonia in San Filippo Neri today (photo by Aldo Mattea)

After a year of composing, planning, fundraising, and organizating, the Passion concerts for the oratorio Alberto wrote took place this weekend. Baroque ensemble Aurea Armonia (plus a few guest instrumentalists), five soloists, and a choir of 35 performed a Baroque-inspired Easter narrative from the Gospel of John in two Turin churches on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Both performances packed large churches (one the largest in Turin) and received standing ovations. It was really amazing to see this come together, but as you can imagine, everyone is exhausted (in a happy way) and it’s going to take a little while to get photos and videos edited and posted. If you have Facebook, however, you can click the link above and follow the ensemble’s Facebook page, which means you’ll get updates.

Goodnight!

Interview about the Passion in Il Bicerin

As I have mentioned here before, Sarie and Alberto have been involved for over a year in producing a Passion oratorio that Alberto composed. Now the time for the performances has finally arrived. The concerts will be held tomorrow evening at 9:00 pm and Sunday afternoon at 4:00 pm.

Meanwhile, a local review, Il Bicerin, has written up the project in an interview with Alberto. I shared the article on Facebook, but since more than half of my Facebook friends are English-speakers, the article is in Italian, and a Facebook post is way too short for a translation, I thought I’d put it here instead.

With my apologies to Mr. Gunetti, my translation has taken the liberty of adjusting the formal Italian style a little, so that it reads more like American journalism.

At 22 years old, he writes a Baroque oratorio on The Passion of Christ: An homage to the Shroud of Turin

 The Passion According to St. John is a sacred oratorio for solo, choir and orchestra.

DSC_0204 - Version 2By Andrea Gunetti

Alberto Mattea, probably one of the most multifaceted young artists in Italy (he plays Baroque oboe, composes music and directs films), has composed a musical homage to the Shroud of Turin. It’s a Baroque Passion, like Bach would have written, based on a libretto by Giorgio Enrico Cavallo and taken from the Gospel of John. Two performances of this new sacred oratorio will take place at 9:00pm this Saturday evening and 4:00pm Sunday afternoon.

How did you get the idea to write something as anachronistic as a Baroque Oratorio today?

The project began when the librettist and I were talking and we realized that the Exposition of the Shroud would be the perfect occasion to write something momentous. If the idea seems anachronistic, consider that the Passion is simply the central element in the Catholic Easter liturgy, put to music. It’s true, however, that Passions are rarely composed today, and they are usually heard outside their original sacred context.

How is it structured?

The Baroque Oratorio is traditionally divided into cori, recitativi, arias, and chorales. The text is sung by John the Evangelist (a tenor) who speaks with Christ (a bass), Pilate (a tenor) and the women (sopranos). The arias are reflections on the Passion as sung by Christ, Pilate, Mary Magdalen, and a penitent soul (a countertenor), who contemplate the redemptive suffering of Jesus. The cori and chorales internalize the message of the Evangelist.

It’s interesting that your Passion also includes the Resurrection, but Bach’s don’t. Why is that?

According to Bach’s Protestant vision, the Passion and the Cross represented Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross as the central point of salvation. One also has to consider that Bach’s Passions were meant to be played on Good Friday, a moment of suspension in time during which one contemplates the death of Christ. Speaking of the Resurrection in this context would be out of place. We usually don’t notice this because we listen to the Bach Passions as concert pieces. But in our case, since Easter has already taken place, there’s no reason not to celebrate the Resurrection in music.

These are serious ideas. Do you think the public will appreciate them?

Any artwork, including this one, will receive both appreciation and criticism. Some of this will be objective and some will be according to personal taste, which of course varies. Bach was in his 40s and already a master when he composed his Passions, and I’m only 22. That’s a crushing, unreachable comparison. But the point is this: Our Passion was not intended to be a measuring stick. The main point isn’t how it’s carried out, but instead it’s meant to be personal homage to and meditation on the Man of the Cross.

***

Bravo, Alberto! I’m so looking forward to hearing the Passion performed this weekend!

Mountain concert

IMG_1412

Last weekend the old Baroque group Aurea Armonia, in which Sarie and Alberto met, reunited with a few other instrumentalists and combined with Eufoné (incidentally, the choir in which Alberto’s parents met) to perform several Baroque pieces, including all of Bach Canata 140. Sarie and Alberto both had considerable instrumental solo parts. The concert took place in Corio, a small town about an hour outside of Torino near the mountains.

Sarie and Alberto have been doing quite a lot of concert traveling lately, as well as a lot of other creative activity related to early music and film, so I’ll try to do some more posts about these soon. Meanwhile, I particularly liked this concert because it was nice to see the old group reunited under the tutelage of Eufone’s Alessandro Ruo Rui, and I liked the cozy feeling of being there on the first crisp fall evening in the mountains. It takes considerable effort for me to attend these concerts, since I still don’t have a driver’s license, but when I’m able to arrange a ride, I always find it well worth the effort.

(The first photo above is of the main church in Corio. Below are three photos of the rehearsal and then one of the final concert. The original four members of the Baroque group, including Sarie and Alberto, are on the right. The three rehearsal photos below were taken by Aldo Mattea.)

10647110_824923104219722_2070211421207937720_n10703899_824922574219775_1726330762217271928_n10622843_824921694219863_4904872922015196494_nIMG_1421

Rehearsal video for the Passion

 

Here’s a little rehearsal video for the Passion project, made last week. The musicians are basically the same as for Sarie and Alberto’s Renaissance group, Suavis Concentus, which will be ready to start performing in the fall. The orchestra for the premiere of the Passion, however, will hopefully be much larger. That’s why they’re fundraising! They have about 40% of their needed funds raised with a month left to go.

Anyway, the video has a sample aria for soprano, Baroque flute, lute and viola da gamba. Alberto, as composer, usually conducts, but here of course he’s holding the camera instead. And who is the soprano? Sarie! This was her first attempt at exposed singing, so she was a bit uncomfortable, but Alberto kept trying to reassure her that she could do it, so eventually she consented. She won’t be the soprano in the premiere, but she did get into the part enough to give me a mock glare and say, “Don’t even try to negotiate with me. I’m a soprano!”

The clip is about a minute long and was filmed in our living room.  Enjoy!

 

The Passion and Resurrection According to St. John

 

It’s just after Easter.  So you’d think this wouldn’t be the time to be posting about a Passion, which is an oratorio depicting the events leading up to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.  But actually, it is the right time, because it takes a while to write a good Passion, and this one is for next year.

As you may know, Torino (Turin in both English and Piemontese) is the home of the Holy Shroud, which has obvious links to Easter. Every so often the Shroud is presented publicly, with people coming from all over to see it. Next Easter is to be one of those times, with Pope Francis in attendance and many local organizations planning to commemorate the event in some way. One such organization, the Confraternity of the Shroud, has commissioned Sarie’s boyfriend Alberto to write a Passion in a neo-Baroque style.

In the video, Alberto explains what he has been commissioned to do, how he will do it, and why he accepted the commission. The life of a young musician, especially in Italy, holds abundant opportunities to perform, but many fewer to get paid. As he explains in the video, the performing the Passion will require an orchestra, soloists, and a choir.  He has enough connections that a number of skilled musicians (including Sarie) will perform for free, but he’s still trying to raise enough to at least reimburse their travel expenses and make a quality recording of the performance.

If you or anyone you know would like to help make this project happen, there’s a link in the video for contributions. Feel free to link to this video or share it as well.  They’ll be raising funds for about the next 60 days, and they get a higher percentage of what people contribute if they make their goal.

La Bella Noeva

 

Oops, I rather disappeared again, didn’t I?  What have I been doing, besides eating a lot of oil and vinegar on potatoes, practicing calligrafia rustica, and trying to make tiramisù? Well, hard to say, but I’ve been listening to the music in this video a lot over the past few days, and it’s absolutely delightful. Other than it being Baroque music with original instruments and some of my favorite Monteverdi pieces on it, I’m not even that deeply knowledgeable about it. Sarie and Alberto could tell you a lot more, I’m sure. But it’s well worth listening to, all hour and twenty minutes of it. If you hit the “show more” tab, you’ll see the names of the pieces. And there’s a fun sort of surprise encore at the end, too. The singer, Marco Beasley, is not only a skilled singer, but he is very expressive to watch, which I didn’t figure out for a while because at first I was always doing something else while listening.

Finally I got so curious about how someone could be named Marco Beasley and speak French with an Italian accent that I looked up the group, Accordone. Turns out his mother is from Naples, but his father is English. If you bring this video up on YouTube, another one will also come up, with street music from Naples. It’s altogether different, with lots of percussion, but just as interesting.  Buon ascolto!

Bells

 

I walk by the church in the photo above most Sunday mornings, and sometimes I happen to walk by at just the right time to hear the bells ring. They go on for quite a while and fill several blocks with their sound.

Our parish church has a carillon instead. It got about a halftone off sometime last year and ever since the jaunty little three-note tune has sounded comi-tragic. There’s actually an expression in Italian, “Stonato come una campana.” It means, “As out of tune as a church bell.”

Church bells make me inexplicably happy. And lest I start to sound as obsessed as Sarie already knows I am, the Don Camillo theme is also based on church bells.