Anghiari Festival, Benjamin Britten, Castel Montauto, Eroica, Eugene Lee, For Behold Darkness Shall Cover The Earth, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Maurice Ravel, Messiah, Parliament Choir, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Sir Thomas Allen, Southbank Sinfonia, Suite for two clarinets, Vox Musica
I did not have the greatest of Wednesdays by any stretch of the imagination, a product of a few small slips snowballing into something I viewed as very important, so it is fair to say that I did not welcome Thursday with any great enthusiasm. Gradually through the day, though, the wheels were fixed once more to my wagon, securely enough to see me through to the end of the week, at least.
At lunchtime on Thursday the Suite For Two Clarinets was given its second performance of the week at a private event at a lovely house just outside Anghiari. Our hosts, mainly members of the Parliament Choir, were generous and welcoming, and some very kind words were said both about me and my music, putting me in mind of what Heinz-Harald Frentzen said when he won his first Grand Prix – “This is like oil on my soul”. The rest of the day passed by in its normal blur, culminating in a wonderful performance of Messiah which included many local singers, an event I view as one of the most important of the week. We survived the traditional Italian problems with the lights (appropriately just at the start of For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover The Earth), and at the end of the performance, as the soloists were presented with small but perfectly formed floral tributes, one flower girl wound her way through the orchestra to the chamber organ to present me with one as well.
Friday morning brought another private event at Castel Montauto, and space was highly sought, especially as we had one of the world’s great opera singers here to perform for us, a knight of the realm too. The Contessa (whose Castel it is) told me “there is always space for you” when I mentioned that I had assumed it was going to be too busy for me to come. We were serenaded by various players from Southbank Sinfonia, including this year’s leader, the wonderful Eugene Lee, but even Eugene, no slouch himself, was put in the shade by Sir Thomas Allen, who sang Britten and Vaughan Williams. From the very first note it was clear that here was one of the greats, and many were in tears by the end, even those who are regular opera-goers, for it is one thing to hear a great singer from the stalls, quite another to be within touching distance. A regular topic of conversation during the week was the fact that recorded music can never replace live, never imitate that whole thing about pushing air.
Later I was ferried to another lunch, this time at the place I failed to get to on Wednesday, and then introduced (and in one case, attempted to introduce) the pieces in the evening concert. Unamused I stomped off home, at least with the beauty of the Tuscan countryside to keep me occupied before I arrived back at my hotel room, exhausted. That exhaustion was no real surprise, for days in Anghiari consistently start at nine and end fourteen hours later and in between those points one is usually being ferried to one point or another, working all the while. There will be some thinking done in the quiet of the summer break, I am sure, a tweak here and there, a gradual meeting of intention and reality.
Saturday was one of the highlights of the week, the afternoon kicking off with a concert featuring a choir of local children (and you-know-who’s arrangements) who never fail to charm. They were in a new venue this year, up at the top of the hill, but the crowd was still large and generous, and stayed for a performance by the local percussion ensemble The Mallets.
This was but a taster for the evening, however. Haydn, Ravel and then three arias by Sir Thomas Allen (still cannot quite believe that to be true!) which left the audience in raptures. To round off the year the orchestra gave a performance of Eroica which positively crackled with energy, ramming home just what a revolutionary piece this is. It takes something special to compete with STA, but the combination of Beethoven, Eroica and Southbank Sinfonia came ever so close. Local dignitaries spoke with genuine sorrow about the end of the Festival, reminding us that, as of today, they begin the countdown to next year.
On Sunday morning Vox Musica supplied the music at Mass in the church at the top of the hill, I stocked up on my final ice cream of the year (lemon and strawberry, for the curious), and then we got on the coach for the beginning of the long trek home. At 10:30 I got back to my house, my other half looking anxiously out of the window awaiting my arrival like a modern Juliet, the door open by the time I got there. It is truly good to be home.
One of the orchestral players said to me during the week that I was always secreted in some corner or another, scribbling away on my latest music (actually, the language used was slightly fruitier, but the point was the same). Well, yes, and a good thing too. It is not for show, never has been, but has always been something I have been desperate to do. Having the Suite performed so well this week, twice, has marked another step forwards, and I have, as always, taken the opportunity to talk on and on (and on) about what music and composition mean to me. I have even managed to keep my other pieces on the boil, make a couple of changes to the Suite for performance by mandolins, and rearrange another choral work for September. No wonder being in Anghiari is tiring when I have to fit in my own work as well.
As we left the airport yesterday evening I received hugs from some members of the orchestra, when only ten days before we barely knew each other. Make no mistake, there are some genuinely talented players in there, and this year’s group is mature and serious about its music making. I always find it sad that, by the time I have got to know them properly, their time in the group is very nearly done.
Anghiari has a special kind of magic, and transmits that fairy dust to those who flit around the Tuscan countryside to the concerts, but, below the surface, the inner workings of the Festival are hammering away as if life itself depended on it. As I headed for the blue channel at Heathrow yesterday I remarked to one of the heroic orchestral behind-the-sceners that the good thing about Anghiari only happening once a year is that it gives us time to forget just how tough the experience really is, but it is worth it for those amazing memories. What will next year’s Festival bring, I wonder?