La Scala Chamber Orchestra performed rare, recently discovered and adapted instrumental arrangements of fantasies or medleys based on the themes and material from Verdi’s operas (arranged by his contemporaries—virtuosic friends and colleagues of the great Italian composer) at a private, invitation-only concert at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on October 7th. For the very elegantly dressed full-house, the program marked the commencement of an American tour celebrating the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. La Scala will be traveling on to New York to perform publicly at Carnegie Hall this evening October 10th. The concert and tour are funded by Eni Corporation, a gas and oil Company in partnership with MIT, providing research funding to their School of Engineering to develop convenient and affordable but also more sustainable forms and means of harnessing energy, with a primary focus on solar power. This concert was Eni’s extremely generous public relations gift to a very receptive audience of faculty, students and staff. As a well-cared-for ‘guest’ and member of the “press” for this concert, the hospitality was truly exceptional, and the musical experience was like a trip to Tanglewood without the long drive.
It is fair to say that Boston is somewhat partial to early music, and therefore this kind of program could be too easily dismissed by intellectually sophisticated connoisseurs as candy for the ears. Yet, it was deeply satisfying to hear these world class musicians play familiar yet virtuosic music of their native land as effortlessly and second—nature to them as breathing. Camaristi della Scala is composed of three violins (Salvatore Quaranta, Gianluca Scandola, and soloist Francesco Manara), viola (Joel Imperial), two cellos (Jakob Ludwig and soloist Massimo Polidori), doublebass (Alessandro Serra), flute (Flavio Alziati), oboe (Alberto Negroni), clarinet (Mauro Ferrando), bassoon (Laura Costa), and horn [corno] (Claudio Martini). This can be a cumbersome and treacherous sized ensemble to manage without a conductor, and yet their empathic connection to each other, sensitivity to rubato and solo-lead cadenzas sang like one body. There were no tentative entrances or ragged cut-offs.
Founded in 1982 and formed by musicians from the Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, including internationally renown soloists who serve as first musicians in the first sections of the La Scala Philharmonic Orchestra, their biography states: “The constant and many years of attendance of the greatest conductors on the international scene, from Riccardo Muti to Daniel Barenboim, have contributed to shape the sound of the Cameristi della Scala and allowed their musical timbre and phrasing characteristics to emerge—all characteristics that are definitely unique in the Italian musical panorama of chamber orchestras.” What was unique to this listener was the sense that this ensemble was more than capable of supporting a singer buoyantly and without struggle, while on its own, each individual instrument was heard just as exquisitely distinctive without ever missing a musical opportunity to bring out its voice.
The concert program, entitled “Fantasies from Verdi’s Operas: on the occasion of [the] 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth,” was a collection of unpublished instrumental arrangements, mostly for solo violin and cello accompanied by piano) discovered, edited and adapted for chamber orchestra by Director Gianluca Scandola. These pieces were composed by renowned musical contemporaries of Verdi. The program notes explain:
In the 1800s, the theatre’s musical pieces were performed for the public by means of transcriptions and adaptations. The author of these transcriptions, fantasies, or paraphrases is very often a well—known virtuoso who is using famous opera themes to show his talent as a composer and player.
The form of Fantasies… includes the opera as a whole, through the selection, the assembling, and the re—elaborated version of some of Verdi’s most famous melodies. All of these are in context that underlines the cantabile and virtuous qualities of the music itself.
In a post interview, Scandola described these pieces as the moral equivalent of “19th-century ‘covers’” (before music could be recorded) that both reflected and perpetuated the popularity of Verdi’s operas, and were also an affectionate nod to his melodies intended as “a joke.”
Although these works possess a playful familiarity, they are significantly more sophisticated in composition and virtuosic technique than, for example, a Rogers and Hammerstein musical overture. They also possess facility for modulation that redeems them from the redundancy of too simplistic a Bellini—like melodiousness or Rossini—like vamp. And Scandola’s orchestrations are quite remarkable.
The program began with Giovani Avolio’s Falstaff (1893) for violin, cello and orchestra. Avolio is a forgotten artist born in Naples, 1849 with an unknown death year. As an introduction to this genre, it was beautifully arranged, passionately lyrical in places, and pastoral with sparkling and mischievous woodwinds.
This was followed by Luigi Mancinelli’s (Orvieto, 1848—Rome, 1921) Don Carlo (1870, opera premiere in Paris 1867) and Aida (1873, opera premiere Cairo 1871) for cello and orchestra. Mancinelli was a cellist admired by Boito and Wagner and an important Italian director. Don Carlo had a Spanish flare with impressive cello upper register harmonics, performed by Francesco Manara. His intonation was impeccable with passionate understanding of the melody’s operatic origins. One longed to hear this cellist play Dvořák. There was a quiet, but impressively virtuosic arpeggio moment in the clarinet (played by Mauro Ferrando) that was rather breathtaking for anyone paying attention. Aida possessed a whirling, dreamy quality in places with a rich register and lovely moments between oboe and cello.
Il Trovatore (1862; opera premiered in Rome 1853) for violin and piano (adapted by Gianluca Scandola for violin and orchestra) was written by Camillo Sivori (Genoa, 1815—1894). Sivori was a protégé of Paganini, admired by Rossini and Verdi, and considered one of the best violinists of his time, having played with Lizst, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz. This piece made playful use of the mezzo aria Stride la Vampa with an unquestionably Italian sensibility, and a section of string plucking in 6/8 that was Donizetti—like, but then moving into interesting modulations and dramatic cadenzas. Violinist Francesco Manara’s tone quality was beautifully exhibited throughout as complexly rich and lyrically sweet.
The final piece by Antonio Bazzini (Brescia, 1818 – Milan, 1897), La Traviata (1865; opera premiered in Venice 1853), possessed the most accessible ‘hook’ for an unschooled audience, as it made full lyrical use of one of Violetta’s arias. Bazzini was the most important composer on the program and a professor of composition who mentored Puccini at Milan’s Conservatory. He lived a while in Germany and was very esteemed by Mendelssohn and Schumann. The Mendelssohn/Schumann/Brahms influence was palpable in places.
This concert was received with a standing ovation in which two Encores were performed, both adapted and arranged by Scandola. The first encore was from Rigoletto, and the second was from Aida.
This US concert series is part of the “2013 – Year of Italian Culture in the United States, an initiative held under the auspices of the President of the Italian Republic, organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Embassy of Italy in Washington, D.C., with the sponsorship of Eni, Corporate Ambassador.” As part of Eni’s public relations policy, in their biography material it is stated that, “supporting cultural initiatives has always been a hallmark for Eni and in 2006, the company chose the motto, ‘culture of energy, energy of culture’ to effectively describe its commitment to promoting artistic and cultural events in the countries in which it operates.” In Eni Chairman Giuseppe Recchi’s introductory speech, he expressed that “Without culture we cannot truly understand the world in which we live, and much less will we be able to comprehend the future which awaits us and therefore select the objectives which will enable us to satisfy the real needs of humankind.” In sponsoring and producing this private concert, it was Eni’s intention to offer the MIT Community a gift of Italian cultural excellence as a gesture of good will, and this gesture was successfully and well-received.
In addition to Carnegie Hall, La Scala Chamber Orchestra’s Eni-sponsored U.S. tour will include performances in Providence (Brown University), Washington D.C. (Embassy of Italy), and Miami.
Janine Wanée holds a B.Mus. degree from the University of Southern California, a M.Mus. from Boston University, and professional certificates from the Boston University Opera Institute and summer Acting Shakespeare course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.