There's just one small problem with summer getaways in Tuscany: with its rustic stone fortresses, crumbling abbys, neon sunflower beds and rolling fields scarred by old carriageways, each town offers breathtaking views. So how do you choose?
For us, it was easy: ancient, cypress-lined Sinalunga in the province of Siena -- because at night when the humidity creeps over the curving hills and turns paper to pulp, there's live music, sometimes under the heavens. Every summer for the last twenty-five years, the annual chamber music festival, Incontri in terra di Siena, fattens Val d'Orcia's charming landscapes with classical music sustenance.
And like the most enduring Made in Italy legacies, it's a family affair, founded in the memory of Antonio Origo and his Anglo-American wife Iris in 1988 (the same year of her death) by the couple's daughter, Benedetta and her Argentinian violinist husband Alberto Lysy. The family's matriarch, best known for her autobiographical chronicle of wartime Italy, War in Val d'Orcia, had a great love of music and procured musical friends such as Yehudi Menuhin, and in fact, Benedetta met Alberto through Menuhin, who was a former student of the American violinist (who later co-founded the International Menuhin Music Academy in Gstaad). The couple's cellist son, Antonio Lysy, is the festival’s artistic director.
Last Friday, we arrived in Sinalunga under rolling summer thunderstorms for the opening night concert with conductor Francesco Cilluffo, soprano Cinzia Forte and the small but mighty Orchestra della Toscana's Wagner, Verdi and Prokofiev. It was held at La Locanda dell'Amorosa, an idyllic, ancient hamlet of chapels and farmhouses ringed by stone arcades that's been manicured as private villas. Referenced in maps and frescos since the 16th century but boasting Etruscan roots, we stayed in one of Amorosa’s ample, century-proof stone villas decorated in terra cotta floors, hand-plastered walls and exposed-wood beam ceilings.
With genre-spanning composers and soloists, the festival hops the churches and piazzas of neighboring towns such as Montepulciano, Chiusi and Pienza, but the star venue is Villa La Foce, the heart of the Origo family's Tuscany roots, with its manicured gardens and a little medieval castle overlooking Val d'Orcia. When the Origo family bought the 15th century, three-level former wayside tavern in the early 1920s, it was a crumbing, neglected estate, but through massive renovations, it’s been polished into a tidy gem. The villa’s large gardens thrive with lavender, roses and wisteria, framed by fountains and cypress trees and a small travertine chapel that’s the final resting place of Iris and Antonio Origo.
As swallows skimmed the Locanda dell'Amorosa’s tile roofs and birds cheered dusk in song, Incontri in Terra's 25th anniversary season bowed an open-air concert in the gravel-bedded courtyard. With an honorary committee represented by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Charles Dutoit, Hans Werner Henze and Maurizio Pollini (among others), music making isn’t frivolous.
Cinzia Forte slipped into Violetta's Traviata arias -- Act I 'E' strano' and Act III 'Addio del passato' – with more polished pronunciation and dramatic heft than smooth line while Orchestra della Toscana bowed precise strings and tight brass in masterful measures. Between Verdi, conductor Francesco Cilluffo warmed up with the Siegfried Idyll and closed with a lighthearted Prokofiev 1st symphony.
Before the concert ended to a gala dinner on the tented terrace, Forte sung a heartfelt 'O mio babbino caro', which Cilluffo humbly dedicated to his father, an intimate gesture that wasn’t out of place in such a familial atmosphere.
Later, over dessert, Benedetta wound around banquet tables in a humidity-proof coiffeur and a jacquard evening coat and graciously greeted donors and patrons -- a mixed crowd of Americans, British and Europeans, crisp buttondown shirts and navy blazers on elegant men and perforated laces and legacy jewels on smart women. It didn't matter that OC was a first-timer -- for such a culturally-devoted family, a stranger's pilgrimage under the gesture of music is enough to earn their hospitality.