On June 21, Riccardo Muti held the distinguished honor of resuming the performance of live orchestral music in his native Italy by conducting the opening concert of the Ravenna Festival. This concert served as a deeply meaningful symbol of the country’s return to cultural life since Italy’s strict lockdown was introduced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus early in 2020. “This evening, Ravenna doesn’t forget its past or its passion, and it is the first to bring music back to the stage,” said Maestro Muti in a speech during the concert at the historic 15th-century fortress, the Rocca Brancaleone. “It is an important act, and an act of courage.”
For the opening concert, Muti was joined by more than 65 members of the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra and soprano soloist Rosa Feola. Passionate about teaching young musicians, Muti founded the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra in 2004, and the ensemble has been a regular fixture at the Ravenna Festival ever since. Muti thanked the socially distanced audience and distinguished government and diplomatic officials in attendance, including President of the Italian Senate Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism Dario Franceschini and UNESCO Secretary-General Audrey Azoulay. Muti also brought attention to the special efforts of the young musicians to comply with special regulations required for the concert: “Two musicians, not one, should sit at each music stand; four hands should turn the pages, and now each one of them must do it alone.”
The concert opened with Rêverie by Scriabin, followed by Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate and Et incarnatus est from the Mass in C Minor, K. 427, the latter two featuring Feola. Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major (Jupiter) completed the program. “A refined music expert could wonder what Scriabin has to do with Mozart,” Muti said. “The explanation is that the work opening the concert, Rêverie, is a wish.” He continued, “There are many elements to make us hopeful, to make us believe that the dream we have lived can turn into a beautiful reality.”
The June 21 concert was streamed internationally via riccardomutimusic.com and ravennafestival.live, in collaboration with Riccardo Muti Music. Muti concluded his remarks at the concert with a message for musicians worldwide: “Our thoughts must go to the musicians of other countries, and to every one of them who is watching us tonight. I want to send my wishes to musicians all around the world: I wish you all the best for the future, with love and friendship.”
Muti’s next performances were the annual Roads of Friendship concerts, which the Salzburger Nachrichten hailed as “fraternity in the name of beauty and culture.” Muti conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) on July 3 at the Rocca Brancaleone and again on July 5 at the Paestum archeological site in southern Italy, with its three ancient Greek temples, dating to about 600 to 450 B.C., providing a dramatic backdrop. “At Paestum, the notes of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 are sadly mounted between the imposing columns of the Greek temple of Neptune draped in red light, as if echoing the tragic times of the coronavirus and the massacres,” said Le Figaro.
These two concerts marked the 24th annual Roads of Friendship, a music initiative established by Italy’s Ravenna Festival to build bonds among nations afflicted by war, natural disasters or political conflict.
The July 3 and 5 concerts were dedicated to the Syrian civilians as well as Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad and Kurdish-Syrian politician Hevrin Khalaf, both of whom were slain during the country’s ongoing civil war. “This concert is a sign of closeness to the Syrian population, who has heroically suffered for years from a conflict for which there is no end in sight, and upon whose civilians enormous suffering has been inflicted,” said Muti before the July 5 concert began on a large stage erected between the temples of Hera and Poseidon. “We position musicians against violence; our weapons [are] harmony and culture.”
“Any form of atrocity is to be condemned,” said Muti, establishing a connection between two sister UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Paestum in Campania and the Syrian ruins of Palmyra, “one of the places from which European civilization was born,” according to a report in the newspaper Corriere della sera. Khaled al-Asaad, who was honored by these concerts, was the chief archeologist of the ruined city of Palmyra. The excavation site of the ancient oasis city in Syria was badly damaged by the Islamic State in 2015. “The temples of Paestum breathe, they stand still, but they are full of life and history,” said Muti in poignant contrast to the challenges faced by Palmyra and in praise of champions of culture like Khaled al-Assad. As Muti stated in Le Figaro, “There is nothing more heroic than dying to defend culture, the culture of humanity.”
Muti and musicians of the Cherubini Youth Orchestra were joined by Syrian musicians from the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra based in Europe. The New York Times quoted an interview with journalist Colleen Barry and Karoun Baghboudarian, a Syrian cellist living in the Netherlands, who performed in the July 5 concert and who reinforced Muti’s message, saying, “We can build bridges between civilizations, between people, with music.”
Other performers at the July 5 event included singer Aynur Dogan and visual artist-journalist Zehra Dogan, two artists of Kurdish origin who have worked to promote women’s rights and who have both been subjected to attacks and censorship. Dogan’s powerful artwork was displayed beside the stage, including an homage to the slain Hevrin Kalaf that depicts the corpse of a woman being carried on the shoulders of five female figures. This visually stunning concert was filmed by RAI, Italy’s national television company, and will be broadcast July 23 on that network.
“Today, saying I am Italian, you are German, he is French and that other guy is Syrian (…) means nothing,” reported Euro News in quoting Muti. “We are all in this together, and what happens there must interest the whole world.”
There is another opportunity to hear Riccardo Muti and the Cherubini Orchestra via live stream beginning on July 12 in an all-Dvořák program that highlights works influenced by the composer’s time in America, including his Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World) and Cello Concerto in B minor performed by Tamás Varga, principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic. For more information and to access the live stream of this concert, visit the Ravenna Festival’s website.
In addition to recent concert activities, it was confirmed that Riccardo Muti’s Italian Opera Academy will take place as scheduled this summer between July 18 and 31 with enhanced social distancing measures and safety precautions for the benefit of program participants, artists and spectators. Founded in the summer of 2015, the distinguished opera training program is marking its sixth season. For the occasion, Maestro Muti will be instructing students in the nuances of the iconic verismo scores of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.
At the academy, the musicians of the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, opera singers and a group of talented young conductors and répétiteurs assemble, along with dedicated audience members, at the Teatro Dante Alighieri in Ravenna, Italy, for two weeks of focused study with distinguished conductor, master interpreter and teacher Riccardo Muti as their guide. Due to measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Italian Opera Academy planned for March 2020 during Tokyo’s famous Spring Festival was postponed to a future date; Verdi’s Macbeth was to have been the focus of this program.
TOP: Riccardo Muti conducts on a stage specially constructed for the Roads of Friendship concert July 5 at the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Paestum in southern Italy. | Photo: © Sylvia Lelli