Altissima luce col grande splendore
in te dolçe amore abiam consolança
(«Light from on high, fount of splendour,
in thee, sweet love, is our consolation»)
The Umbrian tradition of spiritual song has its roots in the ancient repertoire of Franciscan «Laude», born as poetry and music of a simple nature already in the 13th century. The finest example of this heritage, which continues to be practised still today by groups of Laudesi scattered around the region, is in the remarkable MS 91 of the Etruscan Academy of Cortona, generally known as the «Laudario di Cortona». This incunabulum is the source of a rich tradition of music transmitted orally, still kept alive by popular devotional rites.
This is the heritage behind the 71st Sagra Musicale Umbra, with the Lauda as a guiding compass on a journey that is even richer than in recent editions: 24 performances in the space of 11 days, distributed between 11 different localities, whose spiritual, environmental and artistic heritage is unique in the world.
The Lauda is at the heart of the party atmosphere of the «White Midnight», which, following the wonderful experience of last year’s preview to the Festival, will inundate the centre of Perugia with choirs, orchestras, bands and soloists performing in the city’s lanes, churches, cloisters and squares. The detailed programme will be announced closer to the event, in which every musician will perform at least one melody from the Laudario as a symbol of identity and of «belonging».
A party atmosphere also invests the opening concert, whose programme, unexpectedly secular, constitutes a strong message of hope and deliverance. The Morlacchi Theatre will find itself invaded by a hundred Brazilian youngsters, a Youth Orchestra that has given a new meaning of life to hosts of children born in the poorer districts of Bahia and saved by the power of music. The venture is similar to that of El Sistema founded in Venezuela by Antonio Abreu, and this wondrous project has an exceptional godmother in the famous Martha Argerich, soloist in Ravel’s Concerto in G alongside the conductor Ricardo Castro, founder and animator of the Orchestra.
Possibly the most ambitious project of this year’s Festival is an innovative collaboration with Umbria Jazz. The Laudario di Cortona once again lies behind a commission to Paolo Fresu and Daniele di Bonaventura, who, together with the Perugia Chamber Orchestra and the vocal group Armoniosoincanto conducted by Franco Radicchia (leading expert on the Cortona manuscript, and the first to make a recording of it in its entirety), will illuminate the evocative Romanesque vaults of San Bevignate with their jazz and symphonic embellishments.
The Perugia Chamber Orchestra is the resident ensemble of the Festival, together with Stockholm’s St Jacob’s Chamber Choir and its charismatic leader Gary Graden. The two groups will breathe life into a monographic programme of music by Mozart in the Upper Church of Assisi’s St Francis Basilica: the composer’s famous Requiem will be preceded by two scores that are unjustly neglected, but which are to be numbered amongst his greatest sacred masterpieces, the Offertory Misericordias Domini (from which Beethoven drew inspiration for the Ode to Joy in his Ninth Symphony) and the monumental Kyrie in D minor, a mysterious and unsettling work that is worthy to stand alongside those parts of the Requiem which were completed by Mozart. All three pieces share the same metaphysical key of D minor, with which, at the climax of Don Giovanni, the stage of the afterworld is rent asunder.
Kyrie is also the text chosen by His Eminence Cardinal Ravasi as a test piece for the 3rd «Francesco Siciliani» Sacred Composition Prize, organised by the Sagra Musicale Umbra together with the Pontifical Council for Culture. The three entries chosen for the Finals, selected by an international panel of judges that includes Helmuth Rilling as chairperson and the great composer Arvo Pärt, will be presented in Perugia’s Basilica di San Pietro along with a contemporary repertoire which includes a fitting act of homage to Pärt himself and which also pays tribute to the Holy Father’s chosen «Holy Year of Mercy» by repeating Mozart’s Misericordias Domini. The concert will open with a masterful choral improvisation on the Lauda Alta Trinità Beata.
The Swedish Choir will perform a third concert in Acquasparta, in the magnificent cloister of San Francesco, together with one of Umbria’s finest choral groups, Libercantus with conductor Vladimiro Vagnetti, which has been the recipient of the 1st Prize at Arezzo’s International Polyphonic Competition and of Feniarco’s Special Prize on the same occasion. It will be a very special opportunity to hear two formations taking measure of each other and then uniting together in an act of mutual faith in singing.
For the Festival’s closing concert, we return to the Morlacchi Theatre, for a return visit by one of last year’s star performers, the conductor Juraj Valčuha, this time on the platform with the Haydn Orchestra of Trento and Bolzano, in a programme that is sure to set in relief the young Slovenian’s cultural roots. Dvořák’s 8th Symphony heralds the return to the Sagra’s programmes of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, the highest summit of Slav musical spirituality, sung in an ancient pre-Cyrillic script which gives the work its name. Between orchestra and chorus (from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana), the performers will be around 120 for this mighty score, which received its first Italian performance at the Sagra of 1951, thanks to one of the many invaluable intuitions of Francesco Siciliani. The work is a curious oxymoron, a «secular» Mass which portrays the spirituality and the faith of a nation, «not in religious terms, but grounded on a strong moral base, calling God as witness»: they are the words of the composer himself, one of the most inventive and original musical personalities of the 20th century.
Amongst the Festival’s more unusual offerings, we may number the spoken monologue of Sandro Veronesi on the Gospel of Mark, «Non dirlo» (Tell no man), a show inspired by the burning love for the figure of Christ expressed by his least known Evangelist, who is our uncanny contemporary in his exploitation of narrative. The evening takes place in the enchanting Teatro «F. Torti» di Bevagna.
Spiritual diversity, in dialogue with a Western conception of sacredness, lies at the heart of the programme of the Tunisian singer Abir Nasraoui, whose voice will echo around San Bevignate in contemporary readings of Islamic Sufi mysticism. There is still room for those other faiths that for years have distinguished the attention of the Sagra Musicale Umbra in a land that has always prided itself as a meeting-point between religions and which lives on in the spirit of Saint Francis.
«God’s Jester» is at the centre of the piano recital of works by Franz Liszt by Sandro Ivo Bartoli, which takes place in Montefalco’s Church-Museum, a jewel-box of Renaissance art dedicated to the Saint of Assisi. Admitted to the minor Franciscan orders, Liszt wrote many intensely inspired works, whose mysticism is amongst the high-points of this year’s Festival.
Another venue of extraordinary artistic fascination, the Sanctuary of Mongiovino in Panicale, will play host to the Ensemble Vocale Odhecaton led by Paolo da Col, who will lead us to the rediscovery of sacred masterpieces by that genius of Alessandro Scarlatti, recently brought to the attention of performers and listeners alike by the musicologist Luca Della Libera. The two highly inspired works featured in the programme, the Missa defunctorum and the Magnificat, have been recently recorded by the choir, and the CD is due to be released concurrently as a showcase for the occasion.
No less interest should be aroused by two organ recitals, the first on the splendid 18th century instrument of Willem Hermans in the Collegiata of Collescipoli, the second on the newly restored Grand Organ of Perugia’s Cathedral, a restoration to which the Sagra pays tribute with an «Organ Vespers», played by the Cathedral’s titular organist, Adriano Falcioni.
Spot-lighting Umbria’s best musicians is one of the principal intentions of this year’s Festival and lies behind the philosophy of the artistic programming. Besides the Perugia Chamber Orchestra and the Libercantus vocal ensemble, the fine and authoritative voice of Mauro Borgioni, a born specialist of Baroque repertoire, can be heard in the Abbazia di San Nicolò in San Gemini, together with the instrumentalists of the Accademia Hermans under the guidance of organist and harpsichordist Fabio Ciofini, in a programme dedicated to Georg Philipp Telemann.
Two chamber music programmes go to complete the line-up for this year’s eclectic calendar. Castel Rigone will host the remarkable members of O/ModӘrnt, a Swedish Festival founded by Hugo Ticciati, who will play a highly original piece infused with Hebrew mysticism, Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, whilst the public in Torgiano can hear Schubert’s famous «Trout» Quintet alongside a rarety, the Piano Quintet of Vaughan Williams, performed by the Bottesini Quintet. For the first time, the Sagra holds a concert in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, where the Ensemble Nova Alta, made up of cornetti, trombones and basso continuo, will mirror the artworks on display with music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
The traditional concerts of «Music of Hope», for those whose freedom to move is compromised, will take place in the Female Penitentiary at Capanne and the «Prosperius» Institute in Umbertide, both given by soloists from the Perugia Chamber Orchestra.
And as from this year, the Sagra offers a special showcase for talented young Umbrian musicians, five «Apéritif Concerts» in Perugia’s Palazzo della Penna, where young Conservatoire graduates, some of them already at the start of a professional career, will be an emblem of musical capital for the future of Umbria e of Italian musical life in general.
«Laude novella sia cantata!»
(Let a new Lauda be chanted!)