After the orchestral introduction of the famous cavatina Caste Divafrom the opera Rule, Riccardo Muti (Naples, 81 years old) stopped the musicians of the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra. It happened last Sunday night, July 9, in the historic southern theater of the Roman city of Gerasa (Jordan). The amplified chant of the muezzin was heard from the minarets of the mosques, calling to prayer. And the Italian conductor interrupted Bellini’s music as an act of respect, something the Jordanian audience acknowledged with a round of applause. For a few minutes, the Islamic call to night prayer was heard, with responsorial effects that formed amazing polyphonies. Once finished, the teacher started again Caste Diva from the beginning and continued the concert.
Muti’s musical pilgrimages with his youth orchestra have taken him to Jordan this year. A project of the Ravenna Festival, called the paths of friendship, which aims to create fraternal ties with cities wounded by war, terrorism or natural disasters. Its twenty-seventh edition began with the aforementioned concert in the great southern theater of the Roman ruins of Gerasa, as a way of honoring the humanitarian work of this country. And it also included a visit to the Zaatari refugee camp, on the northern border with Syria. A place where 82,000 Syrians who fled the civil war in their country are concentrated. Muti promoted a concert there with the instrumentalists of the camp, several professional musicians and a brass quintet from the Cherubini Orchestra. An evening that ended with the public and the artists dancing embraced to the sound of the mizmar (ancestor of the oboe of Persian origin) and the derbake (traditional arabic drum).
The Italian conductor has once again added local instrumentalists to the members of his orchestra. On this occasion there were nine musicians from the Amman National Conservatory Symphony, who alternated on the first violin, viola and cello stands with their Italian colleagues. He explained it in a short speech before his concert: “Tonight, the orchestra includes Italian and Jordanian musicians who do not speak the same language. But sitting together they express the same emotions, the same love for human qualities. The director has insisted these days in his defense of an intercultural Mediterranean without hierarchies: “I dream of uniting Mediterranean culture from Spain and Morocco to Greece and Jordan. A culture where the same flowers grow and with the olive tree as a symbol of peace”, he commented on Sunday, during a lunch with the press, in front of the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities of Jordan, Makram Mustafa Al-Qaisi, and his counterpart of Culture, Haifa Najjar.
The Gerasa concert has tried to be a dialogue between western and eastern musical civilization. For that reason, he did not limit himself to combining Italian and Jordanian musicians within his orchestra, but added three songs firmly linked to the Arab tradition in different times and styles. The three were heard in a row as an extensive interlude of about twenty minutes. They were accompanied by two Syrian musicians from You [laúd árabe] and percussion, Saleh Katbeh and Elias Aboub, together with the string section of the Cherubini Orchestra, with the Jordanian musicians at the first music stands. It was kicked off by a song by versatile Syrian composer Dima Orsho, who has collaborated with artists as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma and Tina Turner. A melancholic duet with the particular combination of mezzo-soprano Mirna Kassis and the countertenor Razek-François Bitar, both Syrians. One of the current stars of Jordanian song, Zain Awad, followed with a theme by the Rahabani brothers. And finished Ady Naber, a popular Jordanian tenor who sang an example of the traditional Muwashah.
Muti limited himself to conducting the three classical compositions. It was a carefully selected program with destiny as a common denominator. Three ethical and aesthetic manifestations of the eternal conflict between the supernatural and the human: the second act of Orpheus and Eurydice (1762), by Gluck, which culminates the great mythological tradition of opera; the song to the Mediterranean moon Caste Divaof the Rule (1831) by Bellini, where human rights and divine decrees collide; and a reflection on the fracture between gods and men raised by Brahms from Hölderlin’s verses in his symphonic-choral composition Song of fate op. 54 (1871).
After the national anthems of Jordan and Italy, the concert started with Gluck. A reading away from the dominant historicist aesthetic, although with the novelty for the Italian director of using the voice of a countertenor as the protagonist. At first, the furies were not very intimidating, but everything continued towards a captivating musicality, which culminated in the scene on the Champs-Élysées. Here the Italian Filippo Mineccia raised with admirable expressiveness the mix between singing and reciting the aria Che pure heaven, ideally amplified and supported by an exquisitely filigree accompaniment. The Cuban-American soprano Monica Conesa sang with gusto Caste Diva, although her admiration for Maria Callas brought her closer to the caricature. Here the accompaniment conducted by Muti made the difference, with an ideal harmonic combination of strings and wind together with the refined solo of flutist Chiara Picchi.
But the best of the evening came at the end, after the lengthy interlude of Arabic music, with Brahms timelessly activating Hölderlin’s verses. Muti tensed that opposition between the celestial light of E flat major, which opens the work, and the human darkness in C minor, of the central section, where the Cremona Antiqua Choir shone. But he reserved the most emotional moment for the recapitulation that closes the work, now in C major, and drawing the immense question mark that is our present.
There was no shortage of anecdotes and peculiarities in the concert. The black millipedes that appeared through the cracks in the stands of the Roman theater caused several shocks among the spectators. An audience accustomed to experiencing music in a more participatory way and mostly devoted to the technological fever of filming and immortalizing everything with their mobile phones.
Among the concert attendees was a small representation of 18 Syrian refugees from the Zaatari camp. Muti had visited him the day before with a group of musicians and journalists to learn about and disseminate his admirable example of resilience in the midst of uncertainty. It was born, in 2012, as a set of tents to welcome the first Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war in their country and it has not stopped growing. Today it has reached the dimensions of a city divided into several districts of prefabs with dozens of community centers, schools, health centers and shops. A place energetically supported by a gigantic solar power plant located on the outskirts of the camp and with futuristic features such as the payment system through the iris of the eye, which allows each refugee to manage the subsidy they receive for their survival.
The coordinator of the camp, Adam Nord, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Acnur) explained the role that music plays in the daily life of Zaatari. A double program that, on the one hand, instructs young refugees in traditional music, as a way to activate social gatherings. And, on the other, with a program for adults as a form of therapy. Mahmoud, a 45-year-old Syrian physical education teacher, participates in this program where he plays and teaches to play the You [laúd árabe]. She has been in the camp for 10 years and has five children, three of them born here. Like all residents, she dreams of returning to her country and living in peace.
Muti promoted a concert with Zaatari instrumentalists, where Arabic music coexisted with arrangements of various Neapolitan songs. And he gave them several new instruments. An evening where the strict Arab patriarchal traditions were made clear, which separated men from women in the audience and where music seems to be off-limits to women. But, despite everything, a woman, the mezzo-soprano Syrian Mirna Kassis, acted as singer, instrumentalist and even director of the improvised concert. She herself had to leave Syria in 2012, after the outbreak of the civil war, and she has managed to train in Italy to build a brilliant international career as an opera singer and traditional Arabic music. An idol for the refugee girls who took photos with her at the end.
the paths of friendship It ended this Tuesday, in Pompeii, with the repetition of the concert at the Teatro Grande in the Italian city. It has been the other side of a bridge that Muti has built between both Roman cities through music and culture.
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