Thoughts from Places: Siena

My favorite word in Italian is cucchiaio.  There’s something spectacular in the way those harsh velar stops blend so seamlessly with the warm, open vowels characteristic of the Italian language, to produce a meaning as simple and ordinary as “spoon.”  And isn’t the whole country, in a way, such a combination of harsh and beautiful?  The unemployment rate hovers around 12%, the former Prime Minister finds himself facing a prison sentence, homophobia is common practiceracism is rampant — yet, at the same time, multilingual education is receiving government attention, the Pope is preaching acceptance, and on top of everything, the place freaking looks like this:

Pienza, Tuscany.  Photo by me!
Pienza, Tuscany.  Photo by me!

Italy is a place where history and modernity are not mutually exclusive.  Here in the U.S., it’s so easy to think of the George Washington days as the pinnacle of antiquity.  You go to the National Archives and see the Declaration of Independence in its bulletproof frame, and that’s it.  That’s history here.  That’s the oldest thing there is.  Buildings last for fifty years tops before being knocked down and replaced.  American history is strikingly impermanent, and our fast-paced culture essentially encourages this.  Meanwhile, the hotel I stayed at in Siena was housed in a building older than the United States, older even than the mythical Mayflower voyage — because Italy is a place where buildings can be older than entire countries.  Where streets once barely wide enough to accommodate horse-drawn carriages now choke with motor traffic and tourists whose footsteps unknowingly follow steps taken back when Istanbul was still Constantinople and Christopher Columbus was just a merchant’s apprentice with no dreams of world travel.  We’ve had 44 presidents; they’ve had 266 popes.  It’s indescribable, being in a place so old.  Home seems so insignificant now, but this isn’t a bad thing.  It’s good to know where we stand in the scheme of the world. 

Now that I’m done with my pretentious philosophical rant…

The program I attended was amazing.  Highlights included performing at Mass for the Feast of the Assumption in Siena’s Duomomaking a pilgrimage to Guido Monaco‘s monument in Arezzo; exploring a 2nd-century Roman amphitheater and a 12th-century crypt; speaking Italian with an awesome Milanese pianist; climbing to the top of the Torre del Mangiaplaying the Mozart oboe quartet with amazing new friends; seeing 15th-century chant manuscripts; and eating gelato.  Good times, good times.

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Interior of il Teatro dei Rozzi.  Photo by me.
Interior of il Teatro dei Rozzi. Photo by me.

I had the opportunity to attend a concert at the Accademia ChigianaSiena’s music conservatory.  The program featured Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri overture and Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, as well as the Bruch Violin Concerto with the incredible Boris Belkin soloing.  The performance was held in the Teatro dei Rozzi, a quaint 19th-century hall with limited seating and great acoustics and a spectacular ceiling.  The upper two floors of the balcony were general admission for those of us who bought the cheap tickets — and it was packed.  Now, at every single classical concert I have attended in the States (excepting, of course, kid-specific programs), the average age of the audience was at least 60.  At least.  But at the Chigiana performance, senior citizens were few and far between.  College students abounded, and middle-aged folk dominated.  The audience was vibrant, culturally diverse, and extraordinarily polite — no coughing, no texting, no leaving early.  Though the seating on the top floor provided an awful view, audience members were more than willing to stand or lean as necessary to fully capture the performance.  Applause was genuinely enthusiastic, and the woman next to me actually got up and started dancing during the finale of the Mendelssohn.  Everyone was just so into it.  Why can’t it be like that here in the U.S.?

I will attempt to explore that question in coming posts, now that I’ve experienced the European classical music scene and have a fresh perspective on the issue.  I will be posting less frequently now — just once a week, most likely on Saturdays.  I will continue to alternate between boring old posts like this one and Suggested Listening, but I’m just too busy at school to do both in a week!  As my school year gets rolling, I’m looking forward to more amazing music and musical experiences to share with you.  I’m coming up on a full year of blogging; thanks for being a part of it.

If you’re wondering about the title of this post, check out some of these fantastic videos.


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