The Piazza Concert
The concert stage is a magical place; so very different from place to place yet there can be striking and some painful similarities.
Dedicated to Ernest Fleishmann, brilliant executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic through the Zubin Mehta years.
The man was a retired symphony orchestra musician that had played with of the major orchestras in America. On this particular Sunday afternoon in May he was with his family attending the annual pig festival in the small village of Impruneta just a short distance outside of Florence. The picturesque piazza was alive with booths selling everything from miniaturized icon replicas from Mueso Del Tesoro di Santa Maria Dell'Impruneta e Basilica, to the excellent terracotta pottery that was Impruneta’s specialty. There were also booths for food and drink including the Impruneta pig festival specialty, panino di porchetta, a fresh pork sandwich made from juicy meat just cut from the pig which roasted on a rotating spit; the booth was easy to find, all one needed to do was to follow the mouth watering aroma. There was wine, beer and grappa and at the very next booth there was the vibrant red Sicilian Spremuta, the freshly pressed rich sweet orange juice as red as the Chianti served at the wine booth. And there was cenci, a greasy thin crisp deep fried wafer dipped in powdered sugar, that was far more detrimental to ones health than any doughnut anywhere; cenci are wonderful and is a part of any village festival anywhere in Italy.
The whole experience was nothing new to the family, they had lived in Toscana for several years and been to many of the festivals that were frequently celebrated in similar villages throughout Toscana and throughout Italy, rabbit festivals, snail festivals, turkey, chicken, garlic, onion, tomato, zucchini, olive and grape festivals; they were always a very particular kind of fun and the family’s enjoyment was only enhanced by their experience.
There were young girls who were desperately trying to find their place in the rich world of Italian fashion, usually with strikingly grotesque results, but with the occasional exceptional appearance of an angelic, budding Sophia Loren who would make a grown man quietly gasp at the potential. Similarly, there were the boys either reaching for or having reached puberty, testing there manhood potential by flexing the decibels of their moterinos and flaunting their undeveloped street wisdom and worldliness.
The man and his family found seats on the terrazza just behind the band that was about to begin their concert. The family ordered a bottle of prosecco and three dishes of sorbetto al lamponi from the bar that many people thought made the best ice cream in Italy.
For several years the man could not sit through any concerts played by any ensemble, it was just too hard for him after playing several concerts a week for thirty-five years, plus the added dimension that these village band concerts were particularly difficult because they all had the common denominator of being overtly terrible. But time had mellowed the man’s phonophobia and he was able to relax and enjoy the rural naïve sonic event that was about to begin, he was even looking forward to it, to him it seemed like a caricature of an Italian comic opera and he found it amusing.
What always confused the family though, was that this festival in the beautiful piazza on a lovely spring day, had no visible joy, no laughter not even smiles. Many of the Toscana festivals were like that; they were somber and austere. The family didn’t know why but they expected it to be that way and they were not surprised nor affected by it in the same way they were when they first arrived in Toscana six years before. Perhaps it was that same dark nature that might explain the creation of the Mafia.
The concert was ready to begin and the family prepared themselves, but the piazza remained unchanged; the people continued doing whatever they were doing and almost no one gave any attention to what was about to happen on the small bandstand. Most people, young and old, male and female were more concerned about the image they displayed as they showed themselves in their village, as if posing for some imaginary magazine cover. There’s an Italian phrase to describe that, it’s called “Fare un Bella Figura”, making a good figure; it’s as Italian as Spaghetti.
As the retired musician took his first sip of prosecco two men passed their table and headed for the bandstand, one was tall, powerfully built and wore a leather coat, the other was about 6 inches shorter, walked in a very strange way and had a towel around his neck, their faces were not visible. They walked to the stairs that lead to the platform that was the bandstand, and without stopping proceeded to the conductor’s podium. The tall man helped the shorter one get on the podium; they were now the same height. When they turned around and the family saw their faces for the first time, they were momentarily repulsed.
The tall man, about fifty, muscular and mean looking, was well dressed and well groomed, he wore expensive sun glasses and a fine leather jacket and looked like the kind of man no one would want to disagree with. He stood next to the podium, looked straight ahead and held a blue towel in his hands.
The younger man as far as they could tell was about thirty and was clearly and severely disadvantaged; put in less politically correct language, the young man was severely retarded, severely retarded and the guest conductor for the afternoon’s concert.
The muscular tough looking man in the expensive leather coat with the bodyguard demeanor would take the towel every couple on minutes, wipe the drool from the retarded maestros face and clothing, then the guest conductor of the day would begin waving his hands. The band members knew what piece they were going to play and within seconds the music became recognizable. Sometimes they could finish the piece without the drool needing to be wiped but most of the time the mean looking man would reach over and wipe the drool while the band played.
In the piazza no one broke character, there were no smiles or whispers of how sweet it was to let the poor disadvantaged boy have this wonderful experience. And certainly there were no hints of laughter at the bazaar scenario. The few listeners in the seats that were placed there for the concert were largely expressionless and the public throughout the piazza maintained their pose of “Fare un Bella Figura.” The mean looking man motioned to someone in the band and a fresh towel was immediately brought.
The American was getting uncomfortable, what was happening on that bandstand touched his memory in a way that was just too painful. He leaned over and said something to his family and when the piece the band was playing finished they quietly got up and left the piazza.
On another continent in another time zone the executive director of a famous symphony orchestra was preparing a young conductor to go on stage for his début concert. Facing the young man he straightened his white bow tie, pushed a portion of his hair into place, took a small towel that always sat on a table by stage entrance and wiped away something from young conductors face. Putting his hands on the young mans shoulders; the executive director paternally adjusted his tails coat and sent the debutant maestro out on stage to start the concert with a traditional “Toi Toi.”