by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - August 28, 2006) Cortona is a jewel of a town at the outer edge of Tuscany on the cusp of Umbria. It sits on a high hill overlooking a vast fertile valley and boasts a rich cultural history; its ancient artists include Luigi Signorelli and Pietro de Cortona whose roots go back to Etruscan princes. Its winding, narrow streets are studded with art studios, galleries, and antique shops along with the inescapable cafés, trattorias, and souvenir shops. Each summer, Cortona hosts a Tuscan Sun Festival and, being a small Italian town, one would expect a small-scale assemblage of homegrown talent and an audience comprised of musically-inclined locals. But this year it is playing host to a number of celebrated international artists such as Pinchas Zuckerman, Sarah Chang, Joshua Bell, and Dmitry Sitkovetsky. One can only assume that these artists have been drawn here by the aura of the town itself and some ravenous appetite for classical music, which seems to be deeply rooted in the local populace.
Dmitry Sitkovetsky, a Russian who works mainly in England but has been closely associated with Cortona for several seasons, is the conductor of the homegrown NES chamber orchestra. He is obviously the élan vital of the Festival. His control of the chamber orchestra is extraordinary. Every little kinetic cue from his hands, his shoulders, or the angle of his head elicits some unexpected nuance of tone. The orchestra's sonority is like a highly detailed tapestry viewed under a magnifying glass. He took Mozart's Linz symphony (#36 in C major) at what at first seemed to be a breakneck pace, but the sprightliness was sustained with perfect definition throughout. This wasn't a hurried tempo that pressed or jostled the musicians but maintained a perfect balance from beginning to end. One has never heard Mozart played so fast or heard the Linz so clearly rendered. Sitkovetsky is also an accomplished violinist. He and Paolo Moreno began the concert with Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor with the kind of attack a hungry lion might have launched against its sleeping prey, and again, the clarity of tone was mesmerizing.
This opening program also featured the tenor Marcelo Alvarez in operatic selections from Puccini, Massanet, and Verdi, ending with a spirited encore of "Granada" that turned the roar of the audience into a football crowd whose local team had just won the World Cup.
Garrulous, genial, and slightly self-mocking, Alvarez is the kind of Italian tenor who, encountered in a local bar, would invite you to sit down and share his vino as he regaled you with outrageous anecdotes from his personal life. He is immensely popular with the Cortonians and got an even greater reception during the intermission, when he was leaving the theatre to climb into his limo, than he did in the three or four encores he bestowed at the end of the concert's first half. He is something of an Italian caricature being extravert, swaggering, over-emotional, and self-burlesquing, but there is no mistaking the power of his upper register or the earnestness with which he tackles every aria. My impression is that the Italians adore him because he exudes Italianness and is everyone's idea of what an Italian tenor ought to be -- ironic, given that he is, in fact, Argentinean.
Having briskly applauded familiar pieces from Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini, it was a little astonishing to hear the Cortona audience explode with uncontrollable rapture after Shostakovitch's Opus 73, Symphony For String Orchestra in F minor. The piece was as far removed from the traditional classicism, which had preceeded as anything could possibly be: a rich, agonizing, often dissonant cri-de-coeur that was masterfully rendered by Sitkovetsky with just the right amount of pathos and bumptiousness. As it was being played, I thought to myself: this Festival public, which adored its Mozart and Verdi, will have little tolerance for the near-cacophony of this difficult-to-play and hard-to-grasp extension of Shostakovitch's String Quartet #3, but I was dead wrong. The tumult of the public's reception reflected a connoisseur's appreciation of a complex modern masterwork performed with all the subtlety, alternating tempi, and unconventional textures that make the work so remarkable. It was then that I realized guiltily that I had come to these concerts with something of a patronizing attitude, believing a little town like Cortona could not possibly have as sophisticated and discriminating a public as can be found at the Royal Festival Hall or the major symphony halls of New York and Los Angeles.
On the first weekend of the two-week Festival, Joshua Bell, clad in black and looking like an overgrown Beatle, dispatched Mozart's Violin Concerto in E minor and Beethoven's Violin Sonata in A Major (Kreutzer), the more appetizing part of a program that also included a Bartok and a Prokofiev. The dramatic highpoint of the evening occurred during the Prokofiev when Bell put down his violin and irritably asked the photographer in the stage-left box (directly in his eye-line) to desist from snapping pictures, an interruption that was enthusiastically received by the entire house which felt, along with Bell himself, that any tertiary sound that competed with the Russian master's dissonance was like a stake plunged into the soloist's heart. Bell has become a dazzlingly accomplished musician dispensing maniacal cadenzas like a Paganini-like demon and dolce passages with a Kreisler-like tenderness. It bodes well for the future of the Tuscan Sun Festival that they were able to recruit him for two evenings.
Cortona casts a spell. It has none of the antique majesty of Rome or Florence; none of the medieval quaintness one finds in Todi or San Geminiganni. There is a small but astute expatriate community (most of it English or American) and it tenaciously resists the commercialization that frequently makes tourist-infested Italian towns feel like extensions of Disneyland. In the summer months, the foreign visitors crowd its streets as they do so many Italian cities but one doesn't feel the local residents turn into whores to accommodate its visitors' preconceptions of what Italia should be. Rather, they seem to say: this is the way we always are and if you don't like it, you can move on to more accommodating venues.
The city achieved a spurt of recognition in 1996 with Frances Mayes's best-seller Under The Tuscan Sun and even moreso when the book was turned into a film. But for regular visitors, its appeal was already established. If anything, the filmic romanticization cheapened the reality of the place and made it seem merely like an haute cuisine paradise. The real allure is far less tangible. Not so much what one can taste but what one intuits from the lives of its inhabitants and the ancient Etruscan mysteries petrifying behind its great rock façade.
In the evenings the locals, many of them pre-pubescent boys and girls, dressed like sirens or members of a ghastly 1960s rock-band, loll about the balustrades leading into town chattering like magpies and asserting their right to be themselves despite being surrounded by hordes of tourists in alien garb. The youth of the town seem to be saying: this is our Cortona and we are quite willing to share it with you -- but it will never really be yours, it will always be ours. The city doesn't so much extend itself as invites perusal and contemplation of what tourists can never possess: the free-wheeling, laissez-faire, unbuckled Italian spirit, which is what lures visitors into its midst.
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