Please excuse Opera Chic if she has been a bit aloof and distracted lately...but she had been preparing for a stateside visit, in order to split time between precious friends and family in New York and the verdant suburbs. So as of earlier today, I am nestled back into the brash land of SUVs, 7-11s, indoor plumbing, and Jello. (j/k about indoor plumbing)...In the sage words of Jay-Z: Guess who's bizack, y'all?
But don't worry, gentle readers...
Opera Chic keeps close to her trusted Milanese contacts, who are always ready to relay juicy stories and the latest tidbits fresh from the ensconces of the opera stage. I also promise a few Manhattan outings, as the calendar is already brimming full...
Anyway, last night, while I was preparing my vintage English luggage for my trip back to New York, I made myself a little packing party... opened a bottle of Nebbiolo Langhe, and listened to the live broadcast on Rai Radio Tre of Tuesday night's concert at La Scala to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Arturo Toscanini. Maestro Barenboim conducted the La Scala orchestra in Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the Eroica Symphony.
The Eroica is the piece of music that La Scala always employs to commemorate the greats: the second movement, the Marcia Funebre, had been played there the day of Toscanini’s funeral, the day of Gianandrea Gavazzeni’s funeral, and the day of Carlo Maria Giulini’s funeral. The great maestri who have been associated with the theatre are honored by the Marcia Funebre. (In a little known anecdote, the great and always humble Maestro de Sabata, who had been asked to conduct the orchestra the day of Toscanini’s funeral, refused on the grounds [at least that day] that nobody was deserving enough of the honor of conducting on the same podium that had been Toscanini’s. Therefore, the first violin led the orchestra instead, and the podium remained empty).
I was expecting to hear a dark, moody, very Wilhelm Furtwänglerian Eroica from Barenboim, who is one of Furtwängler’s most ardent fans and is seen as one of the great maestro heirs (Furtwängler in the early 1950s held the same title, Maestro Scaligero, that now Barenboim holds at La Scala...it’s a sort of Conductor Emeritus thing).
Instead, Barenboim chose a fascinating, burnished, solemn sound: a mournful prayer instead of the apocalyptic, disquieting Requiem-like sound that many conductors choose, especially for the Second Movement. Tempi were indeed deliberate but not extremely slow (enough, anyway, to contradict the entire Toscanini ethos of sustained, speedy tempi). The audience’s reaction (the Italian President Giorgio Napoletano was also at the event) was ecstatic: the occasion did not allow for the wild cheering that Barenboim got on December 23, 2005 with Beethoven’s Ninth at the Concerto di Natale, with soccer-stadium-like ovations at the end, but applause was sustained and enthusiastic.
There is a bit of insight to Barenboim's delivery, because in yesterday's Corriere, Barenboim was asked to give a few thoughts about Toscanini and the significance of conducting the Eroica (see column above). Aside from his Toscanini anecdotes, musings on the next season at La Scala, and thoughts on fascism, Barenboim advised everyone to look for a hidden message within his conducting during the Eroica. He highlighted that Beethoven had wanted to emphasise in the Eroica that death is much the same part of life, and everything is bundled into the same cycle, and how everything is rejoined in the flux of beauty and joy...and this was to be the maestro's inspiration.
At the end of the concerto last night, Radio Tre gave us a treat: They broadcasted a speech by Barenboim, delivered for the press at that morning's general rehearsal. It was almost a lecture on Toscanini, on the Italian spirit of his conducting as opposed to the philosophical, German style of Furtwängler. The Maestro eloquently stated,
"For Toscanini, music is; For Furtwaengler, music becomes. Being vs. becoming...it all goes back to the Greek thought".