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Venice, 2008

Music in Venice

When Antonio Vivaldi was maestro di violino at an orphanage for girls called the Pio Ospedale della Pietà in the early 1700's, there were dozens of orchestras in Venice. Every well-to-do family, and there were many, had to have a private orchestra. Of course, that was before CD players and MP3 downloads. Today, finding good live music in Venice is more of a challenge.

Yes, you can listen to Vivaldi practically every day. The Musici Veneziani will play the Four Seasons for you several times a week, dressed up in XVIII century costumes, no less. But I was not too interested in that. With a bit of research on the web, though, I was able to find something a bit more unusual: a concert of Russian music at La Fenice.

La Fenice (the Phoenix) is the last of several opera houses that existed in Venice in the XIX century. In fact it is a bit of a miracle that it exists at all since on Monday, January 29, 1996 it burned to the ground. Only the blackened facade was saved, with a small piece of fresco in the upstairs foyer representing, somewhat ironically, Dante descending into hell. Now, if you were your average French or Spanish official in charge of rebuilding a theater, you would call I. M. Pei or Frank Gehry and would end up with a glass cube or a twisty titanium structure with unlikely angles. But the Venetians are a traditionalist lot. Their motto, as it was in 1902 when they rebuilt the bell tower of St Mark, still is "dov'era, com'era". So in 2004 la Fenice reopened, reborn of its ashes, where it was, as it was. John Berendt wrote a fascinating book about that episode: The City of Falling Angels.

Before the concert, I struck a conversation with the elderly gentleman sitting next to me. He turned out to be a retired viola player from the Fenice orchestra. He assured me that everything - the great hall with its ornate tiers and great chandelier, and all other details are just like the original ones. He did admit that the paint looked a bit fresher. We started talking about Venice itself and he was complaining that it had changed and had become so much more touristy. When I remarked that I was myself a tourist, he exclaimed: "Oh yes, but you come to la Fenice, you are a tourist with class!"

I was a bit skeptical about the program: would the Italian sensibility of the orchestra clash with the Russian essence of the music? I should not have worried. The Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko directed the orchestra with great enthusiasm but with an iron fist. He started with the ethereal, almost impressionist Dawn on the Moscova River of Mussorsky, then he was joined by bass Vladimir Vaneev and the Fenice chorus for Shostakovich's cantata The Execution of Stephan Razin. It is a very powerful, at times violent, always romantic narration of an ill-fated revolt against the Boyards in 1670. The concert ended with Ravel's orchestration of Mussorsky's Pictures at an exhibition, with its light-hearted, serious, or wistful vignettes, finishing with the majestic, almost religious evocation of the great gate of Kiev.

This was an afternoon concert. At the end, my neighbor took an envelope from his pocket and said: "Here are some tickets for another concert tonight at the Malibran theater; I cannot go; why don't you take them?" So we did. This was a free concert, but by invitation only, featuring winners of a European competition for young violinists and cellists. We really did not know what to expect and were somewhat surprised when the first artist who came on stage turned out to be just nine years old. He played with the vivacity of a gipsy and the poise of a pro. He was followed by an eight year old girl who could not be much more than four feet tall, wore a bright red dress and long blond tresses and played with remarkable dexterity. A dozen other young artists followed, in various categories up to 25 years old. By the time they are seventeen, these kids display a breathtaking virtuosity and maturity in their playing. Clearly, there will be no shortage of great musicians in the years to come.

The next day we went back to La Fenice to listen to a young Israeli pianist perform Bach's The Art of the Fugue. This time we sat in one of the loges near the stage, so we were looking straight down at the pianist. He played with wonderful clarity and feeling and there was never a dull moment.

Another night we went to a production of Verdi's La Traviata which, incidentally, was premiered at La Fenice in 1853. This was a minimally staged production in the great hall of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, accompanied by a piano and string quartet. The intimacy of the setting made up for the lack of grand orchestra and we thought it was very well done.

I'll finish this musical tour of Venice with a question: Why do so few of the Venetian churches have an organ? (Santa Maria del Giglio is an exception) and two more pictures: some street musicians at the Rialto market, and a virtuoso musical glass player who could play just about anything by making the glasses vibrate with the slightest caress of his fingers.

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