«War and Peace»
To sum up in just a few words the presentation of artistic director Alberto Batisti, the principal theme of the 73rd Sagra Musicale Umbra is “War and Peace”, a centenary anniversary that dwells on the cessation of the hostilities of the First World War in 1918, and on the horrors of the preceding four years.
No musical expression of recent centuries could possibly be more appropriate than Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”, a harrowing work that sets to music both the Latin Mass and a series of haunting poems by the English poet Wilfred Owen, himself killed at the front just one week before the signing of the Armistice. The work received its first Italian performance at the Sagra Musicale Umbra of 1963, and some 200 musicians – between them, the formidable Choir of Rome’s Accademia di Santa Cecilia, the Italian Youth Orchestra, the Perugia Chamber Orchestra and the Trinity Boys Choir from London – assemble for only its second performance in Perugia in 55 years, conducted by a notable Britten “specialist”, Jonathan Webb, and with another passionate Britten interpreter, the tenor Mark Milhofer.
Choral music has always been a constant in the Festival’s programmes, and the first two concerts see the welcome return of one of Europe’s finest non-professional formations, the S:t Jacob’s Chamber Choir from Stockholm, conducted by the American Gary Graden. Their programmes feature further reflections on war and on peace: together with the Perugia Chamber Orchestra, they will perform Haydn’s 1797 Mass In tempore belli (“In time of war”) and Mendelssohn’s charming miniature Cantata “Verleih’ uns Frieden” (Dona nobis pacem), whilst the Choir’s second concert, in the hallowed setting of Assisi’s Basilica di San Francesco, features Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” (Et in terra pax) and György Ligeti’s extraordinary 16-voice “Lux aeterna”, together with a transcription for choir of Elgar’s “Nimrod” (from his Enigma Variations), which year after year is performed in London before Britain’s monarch by a brass band to commemorate the victims of the “Great” War. The Choir will also perform the three works of the finalists for the 4th edition of the biennial “Francesco Siciliani Prize” for a new sacred choral composition. The Prize is presented together with the Pontifical Council for Culture, chaired by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (who this year chose the “Gloria” of the Latin Mass as the obligatory text), and the winner – or the winners – will be announced during the course of the concert. Chairman of the adjudicating panel is the distinguished composer Salvatore Sciarrino, himself resident in Umbria.
And a Sung High Mass will take place in the Cathedral of Perugia, with the participation of the Cappella Musicale of the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi led by Father Giuseppe Magrino OFM.
Vocal concerts are also prominent. Rome’s multiethnic Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio (vocals and a heterogeneous group of instruments, with both original music and arrangements of pieces by Machaut, Rossini and Britten) will bring comfort and distraction to those who are suffering from the consequences of the 2009 earthquake in and around Norcia (birthplace, we hardly need to add, of Europe’s patron saint, Benedict), and music of a “twilight” nature – 3 Canticles by Britten, together with Lieder, mélodies and songs by Debussy, Poulenc and Barber – also touch the subject of war in the chamber concert of tenor Mark Milhofer with pianist Filippo Farinelli, along with other colleagues.
And other moments of melancholy go to make up the programme of the Bosnian singer and instrumentalist Damir Imamović together with the violinist Ivana Đjurić, who explore a folk repertoire of Ottoman origin known as “Sevdah”, a gesture of inter-religiosity that in recent years has always marked the Festival.
1918 also saw the death of Claude Debussy, whose last instrumental Sonatas, written during the First War, form the heart of a chamber music programme that sees the participation of the distinguished actress Maddalena Crippa, reciting passages taken from Debussy’s reflections on music (“Monsieur Croche”) and from Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”.
And London’s Trinity Boys Choir, fundamental for a memorable performance of Britten’s “War Requiem”, will give the listener a rare opportunity to hear an early XVI century Lady Mass by Nicholas Ludford (a Mass dedicated to the Virgin Mary, written when Henry VIII had yet to break with the Church of Rome) as it would have been performed 500 years ago: treble voices – no female sopranos! – with the support of a few darker voices, voices which have just “broken”.
Other concerts feature a traditional organ recital by the accomplished “titulaire” of Perugia’s Cathedral, Adriano Falcioni, in a programme of spectacular virtuosity that includes György Ligeti’s ground-breaking – and to some “shocking”! – “Volumina” (1966) and a new transcription of the closing scenes from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.
The concert of the young Italian Echos String Quartet will take place in the Winery of the Lungarotti firm in nearby Torgiano, celebrating 50 years since the firm received the prestigious acknowledgement of DOC (“denominazione d’origine controllata”), whilst the innovative members of “Soqquadro Italiano”, led by countertenor and dancer Vincenzo Capezzuto, perform the première of their new “Bach Project”, a choregraphed evening based on some of Bach’s most famous arias, finishing with the well-known aria “Es ist vollbracht” (It is finished) from the St John Passion.
2018 also marks the centenary of the founding of the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, where, in an intimate setting, the listener can admire the Museum’s collection whilst listening to early XVI century Italian music performed by a consummate master of the lute, the American Paul O’Dette.
A series of Midday Concerts, held in the Municipality’s Palazzo della Penna, will be performed by some of the most talented of Umbria’s young instrumentalists and singers, whilst a second series of Afternoon Concerts (5 p.m.) will feature a number of Perugia’s finest amateur Choirs in the Church of Sant’Ercolano.
Palazzo della Penna will also host a photographic exhibition illustrating some of the most striking moments in the Festival’s history, and for the opening of the exhibition the young Assisi pianist Manuel Magrini will perform (and improvise on) piano pieces by Leonard Bernstein, reminding us that 1918 was also the year of birth of this iconic composer, conductor and pianist.
After dwelling on so many of the distasteful aspects of war, the Festival could only close with one of music’s masterpieces, Beethoven’s famous “Choral Symphony”, a forceful and passionate invocation for peace and brotherhood between men. The Choir of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia will be accompanied on this occasion by the “Haydn” Orchestra of Bolzano & Trento, and the conductor will be the 33-year old Frenchman Maxime Pascal, one of the most original young conductors to have gained international recognition in the last few years.