Conservatory of Music of Florence L. Cherubini @ Fondazione Zeffirelli

February 15th, 2018toDecember 15th, 2018

by Tristan Wagner (Stanford University)

Since I started studying in Italy a few months ago, I’ve experienced quite a variety of live music. In bars and jazz clubs, I’ve heard funk, folk rock, and pulsing, electronic dance music that surged with energy and a bass that overpowered the entire mix. The genres reflected the venues; throngs of Florentines and foreigners alike packed into dark, sweaty rooms on weekends to listen to the bands who played away under the neon glow onstage. The music felt casual and familiar.

Whenever I heard classical music, however, that wasn’t the case. I saw a string quartet play outside on Piazzale Michelangelo where the violinists were dressed in the same tuxedos as their audience. The scene could have been part of a wedding. I saw a symphony in Teatro San Carlo in Naples; between the rich gold walls and red velvet curtains of the hall, the air itself shimmered. The audience dressed in homage to the theater, sporting black ties, diamonds, and outfits that only seemed complete when accompanied by a flute of expensive champagne. It felt like the music of the elite, a taste of highbrow culture that fit the stereotypes of Italian opera and classical music I had grown up learning.

So, when I walked through the massive doors of the Fondazione Franco Zeffirelli into a small, white auditorium crowned by an elegant dome and lit by a row of elaborate chandeliers, I was expecting more of the same. But it turns out that if anything, I was overdressed.

I was there to listen to the students of the Conservatory of Music of Florence L. Cherubini play the work of various classical composers, including Florentine symphonist Castelnuovo Tedesco, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. As the lights dimmed, the director of the school began to speak. With my primitive Italian, I could only understand pieces of what he said. He spoke to the hard work and dedication the students had put into the night’s performance, and that for many of them, the show was a culmination of many years of study at the conservatory. He spoke casually, pausing at moments to wave at the familiar faces of parents as they filed quickly into the room, wearing jeans, puffy jackets, and glancing at their phones while he spoke. When he bowed and left the stage, the crowd cheered raucously, whistling and at times shouting the names of their son or daughter that they were there to support.

Finally, the music began. The musicians performed in small groups — sometimes a pianist, violinist and vocalist, other times two violinists and a violoncellist — and faced the audience with a strict focus. The music itself was incredible; the performers looked to each other often and floated through an array of emotional pieces with extreme diligence and an effortless, dancing sound. Everything about the performance echoed the class and style of the other classical music I had heard. But when the last note of each piece echoed in the silence and the musicians lowered their instruments to their sides, they didn’t return immediately to solemnity and begin turning the pages of their music to the next song.

Instead, they smiled. The audience would erupt with praise and a chorus of bravo’s while the musicians on stage couldn’t help but let their emotion show through. To the laughter of the rest of the audience, one man in a Hawaiian t-shirt — even less formal to wear in Italy than it is in the U.S. — stood and yelled every time his daughter took the stage. These small reactions colored the performance for the next two hours and I looked forward to them almost as much as I did the music. It was clear how happy the students were to be putting their passions on display for their families and people that loved them. They showed all due respect to the formality of the works they performed and the majesty of the theater with their talent, as the songs themselves were impeccable. But they descended from the austerity of performance and into their youth and excitement when each piece came to its end. Their mastery was obvious; so was their humanity.

Although I still don’t consider myself an avid fan of classical arrangements, I can say I’ve vicariously gained some additional appreciation through the energy of those musicians. And now, I know that if I ever do have a sudden appetite for classical music, I won’t have to dress up in a suit and tie before I listen to it. A Hawaiian t-shirt will do just fine.

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