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A Concert Tour in Italy

the charismatic Jean-Paul

the charismatic Jean-Paul

 

When I lived in France I became an  addict of  gospel singing. The  choir  consisted of between twenty to twenty five  persons and even when I wasn’t actually living in the Pyrenees I went at least   twice every year to  be instructed by Emmanuel and Jean-Paul, two powerful gospel musicians originally from West Africa and Congo. Their warmth, their gorgeous full voices wrung the pain and pathos from spirituals with such an easy hand; their  bear hugs conveyed generous doses of  encouragement  in two short days and buoyed the spirits of  the most deflated: shy off-key squeakers  braved solos,  no-hopers got high on choral harmonies, introverts began punching the air; in short it was the cheapest and most effective  kind of therapy this side of the Corbieres.

Back in Oxford I joined the Jericho Singers, who meet in St Barnabas Church and are directed by the energetic and unflappable Steph Pirrie.

Steph (in red) at the post concert party in Parma

Steph (in red) at the post concert party in Parma

Last December I signed up with about twenty four other singers to go on a singing mini tour of Liguria, Italy. The arrangements were foolproof- hotel and hostel bookings, train and plane tickets, restaurant reservations, cheese and ham tours and sightseeing expeditions all worked out and in place- like a school trip for grownups.

Having been a bit fixated on France for so long, I hadn’t been in Italy for about twenty years and had almost forgotten the engaging bustle of small Italian towns, full of stylish shops, piazzas,  busy cafes and restaurants and churches that were actually open.

In Parma, the day before our concert in the courtyard of the Scuola Musica, we were shown a few landmark sites by an excellent guide, Melanie, who’d married an Italian and lived in Italy for over thirty years. We learned that out of a population of 190,000, 30,000 were students at the university which was founded even earlier than Oxford and 30,000 recent immigrants. “They get away with a lot,” added Melanie darkly. “It’s a middle-class, bourgeois town. You could say provincial. The aspiration of every child is to live here and die here.”

Jericho singers admiring the Romanesque arch of the Baptistry

Jericho singers admiring the Romanesque archway of the Duomo

Not such a bad ideal when you can cycle everywhere without fear of traffic and pick up a gelato on every street corner.P1020670

one of many depictions of the guardian of Parma, the B.V.M

one of many depictions of the guardian of Parma, the B.V.M

P1020676

The Virgin Mary saved the city from many disasters such as a lightning strike and bombing raids

Natives of Parma believe the Virgin Mary has saved the city from many disasters, such as a lightning strike and bombing raids

The balance of power was regulated by three powers- the ecclesiastical, the civic and the ruling family of Farnese- who commissioned Antonio Corregio’s great fresco of 1530 which shows the Virgin being hauled up the dome of the cathedral  by a myriad company of angels and  Christ seemingly throwing himself down to welcome her into Heaven. The city fathers  gave it a cool welcome, one  worthy dismissing it as “a bowl of frog leg soup”. But the great Titian marvelled,  “Take the dome of Parma and fill it with gold coins!”   Corregio ended up with a broken heart, having rushed to fulfil his  commission in just 290 days and then to be met largely with indifference.

The whole  of the circular Baptistry  is covered with paintings and sculptures from different periods. People travelled from far and wide to have their babies baptised there, baptism being a convenient means of registering citizens. The site is said to have an uplifting energy with ley lines crossing at the font and harmonizing with the Temple in Jerusalem. Our guide Melanie’s son was baptised there and she declares she has never had a moment’s worry about him.

My long-forgotten knowledge of Italian history owed everything to Dennis Mack-Smith, History of Modern Italy. But  possibly the best, if not only, way to understand the story of a place is to take a panoramic tour in order to study how its landmarks link  in relationship to one another:  Our whirlwind look at Parma’s past took in  the Bourbon king Charles V, Charles VIII, Pope Paul III and his five children, Alexander Farnese who fought in the Armada, his descendant Elizabeth said to be the great great great grandmother of Europe (the Farnese’s  married into all the monarchies), Napoleon, his wife Marie-Louise (daughter of the Emperor of Austria) who commissioned the opera house for which Verdi– a son of Parma- composed many operas. Napoleon even granted the title ‘Duchess of Parma’ to his wife. In her honour there is a delectable Viennese style pastry called La Duquesa which I eyed longingly in a pastry shop.

Melting moments- La Duquesa

Melting moments- La Duquesa

On the green lawn of  the Ducal Palace refugees sat in disconsolate groups while a Ukrainian accordianist belted out Bach Partitas “to show them we are in Europe, not Africa.”

Refugees

Refugees

To show we are in Europe, not Africa".

To show we are in Europe, not Africa”.

Of the ducal theatre in the Palazzo Pilotta- made entirely of wood which only ever staged one single performance of Monteverdi’s lost opera “The Triumph of Love”-  Charles Dickens remarked many years later, “the only performance given on stage was by ghosts and woodworm”.

"The only performance given on stage was by ghosts and woodworm..."

“The only performance given on stage was by ghosts and woodworm…”

And so we lent our dulcet tones to the ranks of the great Toscannis  the Verdis and the Callases  and sang in the open, in the courtyard of the Scuola Musica, in a joint programme with our host choir. Nicola and Laura, who are members of both choirs in Oxford and Parma, had put in a lot of work arranging the visit.

Nicola refreshing himself in the Piazza Garibaldi

Nicola refreshing himself after an arduous morning

Levanto was next and on the two hour  journey to the coast the carriages became packed tight as sardine tins as  families climbed into the train for their summer holiday by the sea. Here our performance was in a church with a very welcoming audience. Standing in the front row was quite unnerving to begin with- the last time I got on stage to play the piano all my faculties seemed to freeze,  with the piano taking on the appearance of an ebony coffin (I had to leave  in shame and confusion). But  in the warm June evening surrounded by friends and conducted by our encouraging Steph we sang with spirit and were  rewarded with wine and cake afterwards in the vestry.

Bonded through our travelling together, our sharing of pasta and wine and bleary eyed breakfasts, I noticed how awkward it was for the choir members who hadn’t come to Italy with us. This experience created in me a commitment to the Jericho Singers that had been missing before I signed up last December. I am now looking forward to our next concert tour.

post concert party

post concert party

 

 

 

 

 

 

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