The heritage behind the 72nd Sagra Musicale Umbra

Last year, in the very earth that nurtured the Sagra Musicale Umbra, a wound opened: the wound of an earthquake that is far from being healed. The 2017 Festival could not ignore this traumatic event and the immense unease that it has caused. It is also one of the reasons that led the artistic direction to choose the overall title of “Fratres” for the programme, inspired by the well-known piece of Arvo Pärt, today’s most sensitive exponent of spiritual music, and honoured guest of the 2016 Festival, when, as member of the adjudicating panel, he gave an essential contribution to the “Francesco Siciliani” composition prize.

The theme of brotherhood is also prompted by the 5th Centenary of the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther (1517), an event that opened a profound division in the heart of Europe, offering us the opportunity to reflect, through the means of musical expression, on the question of Christian unity. Modern European culture was born from the immense tragedy of religious strife, which between the mid-XVI and mid-XVII centuries gave rise to those bloodbaths that culminated in the terrible 30 Years’ War. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia, with its proclamation of religious freedom, gave rise to the rebirth of Culture, Humanism and modern Science, those liberalist principles which Illuminist philosophy consecrated in social justice and democracy.

The 2017 Sagra wishes to underline the universal belonging to the source of the Gospels, comparing the musical expressions of faith in those two worlds that for long remained opposed to each other, a dialogue that in musical terms was never interrupted. If it had not been for Northern musicians who came to study in Venice with Monteverdi and in Rome with Frescobaldi, the musical gospel would never have spread to Bach. And without Bach, modern music, whether Catholic or Protestant, sacred or profane, would never have climbed to the heights of Classicism, Romanticism and the XX century.

The Sagra’s opening concert sees the return of Juraj Valčuha, a favourite of the Festival in the last two years, who will conduct the newly-named NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra of Hamburg, so named after the city’s new concert hall, a masterpiece of contemporary architecture. Both conductor and orchestra accepted the Festival’s request to perform the 5th Symphony – the “Reformation” – by Felix Mendelssohn, one of Hamburg’s most famous sons and a staunch figure in recognising in Johann Sebastian Bach as the father of European music. Besides being composed as a homage to Luther, the Symphony has the character of a musical monument to the spirit of Bach. The rest of the evening’s rich programme features two symphonic poems of Richard Strauss, Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration.

The Festival’s programme then gets into its stride with the musical surroundings that met Luther during his famous visit to Rome in 1511, re-evoked by Concerto Romano conducted by Alessandro Quarta in the fascinating setting, both architecturally and acoustically, of San Bevignate, the Church of the Knights Templar. A highly symbolic concert, and the beginning of a dialogue that  runs through the rest of the Festival: a dialogue of musical creation that has been consigned to history from two different directions, both in the name of Jesus Christ. Exemplary in this respect is the opportunity to hear, in the Santuario della Madonna dei Miracoli in Castel Rigone,  the very symbol of Counter-Reformation polyphony,  the Missa Papae Marcelli of Palestrina, together with Bach’s re-elaboration of another musical jewel of the “Prenestino”, his Missa “Sine nomine”, which will see the superb vocal group Odhecaton, conducted by Paolo Da Col, joined by the cornetti and trombones of Nova Alta.

Another precious occasion is the choice of Perugia’s Chiesa di San Filippo Neri (the founder of the XVI century “Oratory” movement) for performances by the fine vocal and instrumental group La Nuova Musica, conducted by David Bates. Their programme is shared between two masterpieces of the mid-XVII century: the Historia sacra “Jefte” by Carissimi, a product of Rome’s Confraternita del SS. Crocifisso, and the moving Musikalische Exequien by Heinrich Schütz, written in Protestant Germany during the harrowing Thirty Years’ War by the father of a musical civilisation that will reach its highest expression in Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach represents the Festival’s compass in tracing the artistic reconciliation of European culture. The performance of his four Missae breves, in the Latin of the Ordinary, is intended as an example of that ecumenical vision which owed its birth to such music. In Perugia’s Basilica di San Pietro, the singers and instrumentalists of the Kölner Akademie, led by Alexander Willens, will bring to the attention of an Italian public these four masterpieces, so strongly linked to the artistic synthesis of the B minor Mass.

And Bach is present again in the programme of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Orchestra da Camera di Perugia conducted by Filippo Maria Bressan: with his glorious Magnificat, the composer’s other stunning work on a Latin text, and hence shared between the two confessions – Catholic and Protestant – in their common sense of belonging to the Christian family. This closing concert takes place in the Upper Church of the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, and features also the Berliner Messe of Arvo Pärt, whose works – along with those of Bach – recur in the Festival’s programme with a certain frequency. The Mass, written in 1990 for the capital city of a Germany that had just been reunified after decades of a tragic separation, is another powerful symbol of that humanistic message which the Festival wishes to communicate, fulfilling its mission to offer the balm of spiritual music in localities that are rich in spirit, especially now that those localities bear the signs of pain inflicted by the violence of the Elements. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has for years been the privileged interpreter of Arvo Pärt’s choral music, as it were his most “authentic” voice.

The work of Arvo Pärt that gives the Sagra its emblematic title, Fratres, will be performed by the charismatic Hugo Ticciati, whose intensity astonished the Festival’s public in 2016. Together with his fellow musicians of O/ModƏrnt, Ticciati is the creator of a Festival in Sweden of the same name, and will interpret Pärt’s  moving piece in the hallowed splendour of the Santuario di Mongiovino in Panicale, one of Umbria’s  finest jewel-boxes of art. Ticciati will also give his personal rendition of Bach’s Ciaccona for solo violin, in which the clarinettist Christoffer Sundqvist will bring to the fore those Lutheran Chorales which lie hidden in the work’s elaborate counterpoint, before leading his colleagues in Olivier Messiaen’s visionary Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, written in a prisoner camp during the Second World War: a warning from on high; an act of faith in music; and a source of hope.

Performing again as soloist, Ticciati also conducts a programme with the Orchestra da Camera di Perugia, since a number of years the Festival’s valuable “right-hand man”. Arvo Pärt is again on the bill, with Silouan’s Song and Tabula rasa, which will enter in dialogue with the frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli and Perugino in the Museo di San Francesco in Montefalco, as will more recent works by the Latvian Arturs Maskats (Concerto Grosso, 1997) and by the Russian-born Lera Auerbach (Sogno di Stabat Mater, 2009). This last piece is a striking re-elaboration of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater, scored for violin, viola, vibraphone and string orchestra.

The music of today has always been one of the missions of the Festival, which over the years has been a constant cradle for XX century spiritual music in first performances, whether on an international or a national level. This year, the Sagra Musicale has commissioned a new work from Silvia Colasanti, Celeste materna luce, imagined since the outset for the intimate setting of the Chapel of the Madonna della Villa, a minute sanctuary on the outskirts of Perugia on the historic Via Francigena. The Chapel is decorated with frescoes that are a simple expression of XIV century piety: ex voto and “holy conversations” which surround a venerable Madonna by Pietro Lorenzetti. Colasanti’s work owes its inspiration to the poetry of Mariangela Gualtieri, one of Italy’s most eloquent voices (and also the work’s narrator), and will be performed by the Quartet of the Orchestra da Camera di Perugia, together with a percussionist colleague.

The other contemporary composer to whom the Festival dedicates special attention is the Norwegian Ola Gjeilo (born in 1978), particularly respected in the field of a modern spiritual repertoire for choir. The Sagra’s choice fell on his Sunrise Mass (2008), along with the diptych Dark Night of the Soul and Luminous Night of the Soul, with the intent of expressing brotherly solidarity and bringing artistic balm to the population of Norcia, the town of Saint Benedict so violently afflicted by last year’s seismic tremors. To this locality, from which spread a monasticism that gave cultural and spiritual rebirth to an entire Medieval Europe, the Sagra Musicale wishes to bring the augury of a new dawn, that new sun which rises in Gjeilo’s Mass, performed by the Coro Giovanile dell’Umbria, by the Coro Canticum Novum promoted by the Fondazione Cucinelli of Solomeo (the first amongst private institutions to offer sustainment in the reconstruction of Norcia’s Basilica) and by the Orchestra da Camera di Perugia, all conducted by Fabio Ciofini. A warm embrace from Umbrian musicians to their brothers, suffering under the violence of the elements.

Besides the Coro Giovanile dell’Umbria, the Sagra Musicale plays host to the Chœur des Jeunes de France in the “Choral White Midnight” which acts as a prelude to the Festival on 7th September and which, between late afternoon and the witching hour, will inundate the centre of Perugia with over 30 events that will also feature the Coro Giovanile Italiano and the vocal ensemble Libercantus.


In the Romanesque Abbey of San Nicolò in San Gemini, Libercantus will be alongside  the German saxophone quartet Signum (one of today’s most imaginative and energetic instrumental groups) in a re-reading of Lutheran Chorales, those spiritual Lieder of the XVI century which generated a vast liturgical repertoire. Their re-interpretation, with modern instruments, of Gregorian chant and harmonisations by Praetorius, Schütz and Bach is part of an ambitious project – “Theses and Sounds” – created by Daniel Finkernagel and Peter Wesenauer for the Signum Quartet to commemorate the 5th centenary of the Protestant Reform. The performance in San Gemini is a world première.

Libercantus will also be present in the Museo di San Francesco in Trevi, where the choir will be accompanied by the cornetti and trombones of Nova Alta in works by the Catholic Victoria and the Protestants Scheidt and Schütz.


The 50th anniversary of the construction of Perugia Cathedral’s monumental Tamburini organ offers the Festival a further occasion to celebrate. Fifty years to the day (13th September 1967), the Cathedral’s titular organist, Adriano Falcioni, commemorates the inaugural concert of the instrument’s phonic creator, Fernando Germani, with music by Bach, Nicolai, Liszt and Reubke, some of which find their heritage in Lutheran Chorales.

The Festival’s spirit of brotherhood is not confined to those who suffer under the after-effects of the earthquake. The well-known Syrian singer Waed Bouhassoun, accompanying herself on the oud in the Church of San Bevignate, gives voice to her profound distress, when confronted with the violence that continues to lacerate her home country, seemingly without end. The female vocal ensemble Armoniosoincanto also takes part.

And as in previous years, that same sense of brotherhood fostered by the Sagra Musicale is offered in social terms to those who are underprivileged: “Concerts of Hope” will take place in the Female Penitentiary at Capanne and in the old people’s home “Opere Pie Donini” in Perugia.

Finally, and following last year’s success, the Festival offers a stage to young Umbrian and Italian musicians of talent, with a series of five “Midday Concerts” in the local government’s Palazzo della Penna, which also houses the Municipality’s Cultural Affairs offices.


Alberto Batisti


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