It's my first blog post from Italy! MtMn and I have made a short-notice trip to Trento, where I am filling in for my boss DM and representing the Staatsoper (addition for my Merkin friends: yo) at a competition for conductors. The situation is unreasonably comfortable: great hotel, jaw-dropping Italian food, fascinating company. The jury communicates in English, German, and Italian, and I'm getting to know the two non-smokers better than my other equally compelling colleagues who flee the concert hall at every conceivable break. And the competition is a real learning experience; I've never judged one for conductors before. The rep list was put together by a man who knows his stuff. Brahms 2 is there, but so are Zerbinetta's aria and the Sprecher scene from Zauberfloete. We get to see right away the depth of each candidate's training, listening, and curiosity. And then there's all that you can't explain, why the (very good) orchestra suddenly sounds warmer for one person, larger for another, edgy for the next. Often these results bear no relation to how the conducting (addition for my Merkin friends: carving) looks. We go out to pranzo and talk about the mysterious and totally unique combination of skills possessed by every good conductor. Today we will cut a field of eight (six men, two women, seven countries) down to five finalists.
But I wanted to tell you about last night, so let me back up. We were collected at the airport by the president of the association whose name is on this competition (which seems actually to be run by the conductor of the orchestra, and the relationship between the organizations is beautifully unclear). He speaks only a little English, so he had another friend along. This man is a retired banker capable of charm in three languages, and he switched effortlessly between them while regaling the president, myself, and MtMn with the history of Trentino and South Tyrol. We went down the autobahn at about 95 miles per hour, the Dolomites jutting on either side of us and the stars bright in the sky. In the middle of his stories about palace construction during the Council of Trent, our host mentioned that on Thursday night there would be a small concert in our honor, featuring the mens' choir sponsored by their association. Just a few traditional songs, nothing more.
After we chose the semifinalists yesterday, this was confirmed by the conductor. We had to do this to make some of the sponsors happy, he said. He'd never heard the choir before, but he promised there would be two or three numbers, and then we could eat and beat a hasty retreat.
This is not actually how it all went down. First of all, no matter how the music sounded, we would have stayed long for the food. A table in the center of the simple room (it turned out we were in the house of our driver's grandfather, the founder of the association) groaned under plates of sausage, prosciutto, grapes, breadbox-sized wedges of gorgonzola, liters of local wine and mineral water, and housemade cannoli. We were doomed, we were done for. But before we approached, of course, there had to be just a few songs.
You've probably already guessed that the choir knocked our socks off. They are not classical singers in any sense. They make their noise in a natural, untrained way, singing traditional songs traditionally (the brilliance of their beautiful, compact vowels is something I'd love to import). Of the 35 men in the group, three can read music.One of those is the leader, the brother of our driver, also a grandson of the founder, and he teaches each section (11 tenors, 9 leads, 7 baritones, 8 basses) by rote. They sing everything a capella, in Italian, French, German, and several dialects that are ear-bending combinations of all three. Pictures of the choir from 1926 onward fill the walls of the house, and I looked at them during the concert, at younger versions of the performers, at their fathers and grandfathers. The current group ranges in age from 24 to 77, young and old guys of all professions carrying the tradition forward, all of it dependent on staying in one place, preserving a language, a way of rehearsing, a set of shared relationships.
They stand in a half-circle, in two rows. Their leader, the grandson of the founder, stands at the far end of the first row, singing with the basses, and he conducts them with his eyes and the most minimal use of his right hand. A small widening and strengthening of that hand produces a huge, lusty sound that fades to a whisper when he turns the hand over and softens its gesture. He opens his blue eyes a little, and the music warms. He sharpens his stare, the rhythm solidifies.
The songs are about the bells in the valley, the way to the church, the young girl at the mill, the soldier marching off to war, and we ask them to keep singing and then after dinner they sing some more. The leader has his choir, his neighbors, his friends, hold the final notes for impossible seconds, and they stop on a dime when he suddenly closes his hand.