Muti’s Friendship Series Capped With Concert In Tribute To Ukrainians

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This year’s ‘Roads of Friendship’ concert was held July 14 on the plaza of the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto, Italy, with Riccardo Muti conducting. (Photos by Marco Borrelli)

LORETO, Italy — A Ukrainian child in traditional dress chants to the Virgin Mary on the plaza of the Basilica della Santa Casa. The hymn for a cappella chorus was written by the composer Hanna Havrylec, who died of a heart attack just after Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February.

Next on the program is Mozart’s Concerto No. 1 for horn and orchestra featuring the German soloist Felix Klieser, who, having been born without arms, plays the instrument with his feet. Once his horn has been wheeled out on a stand, he and conductor Riccardo Muti join the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra with an air of camaraderie.

The concert in Loreto on July 11 was the second and final stop on this year’s “Roads of Friendship,” an initiative of the Ravenna Festival to build cultural bridges to cities wounded by war. The program first traveled to Sarajevo in 1997, shortly after the end of the Bosnian War. Subsequent locations of the annual pilgrimage have ranged from Damascus to Nairobi.

Ricccardo Muti conducting this year’s ‘Roads of Friendship’ concert in Loreto, Italy.

This summer, following over three years of collective suffering caused by the pandemic and with war taking place on Europe’s borders, the concerts set out to create a moment of reflection, if not prayer. The program, which first toured to a historic sanctuary in Lourdes, France, included the chorus of the Ukrainian National Opera in Kyiv and other Ukrainian musicians.

The dancers Tatiana Lyozova and Yaroslav Tkachuk, who performed a pas de deux on the steps of the Basilica during Myroslav Skoryk’s Melody…for an Angel, are among the 65 artists whom the festival’s honorary president Cristina Mazzavillani Muti invited to live in Ravenna after war broke out in February. The bandura player Taras Stoly, meanwhile, would return to the battlefield directly after the concerts.

The Ukrainian National Opera’s choral conductor, Bogdan Plish, who met the Mutis on a “Roads of Friendship” trip to Kyiv in 2018, said in an interview that the event was an important opportunity to both draw attention to what was happening in his country and put Ukrainian culture on display. “Right now it is important to send a clear message that this war is unacceptable,” he said through a translator.

Plish’s chorus was joined by the Cremona Antiqua Chorus under its conductor, Antonio Greco, who recalled that the mood was radically different from an iteration of the pilgrimage to Athens four years ago. “It was festive, full of joy,” he said. “Today we are here with the stories of our Ukrainian friends — which is the strongest thing, even if we talk about it very little.”

In a private ceremony at Loreto’s town hall, Muti emphasized that the concerts should bring a message of peace. Never taking off his sunglasses but at times assuming a priestly tone, the conductor underscored music’s power to unite people. He also made a plea to politicians to support the high arts, using the term “music with a capital M.”

Always an ambassador for Italian culture, Muti recalled hearing Spontini’s La Vestale in the streets of Maiolati, the composer’s city of birth, and being tremendously moved. “Wagner was on his knees to Spontini,” he said.

The conductor noted that the Catholic church played an enormous role in the art form’s history while stressing the universal reach of a sanctuary such as the Basilica della Santa Casa. “This is not a message in one direction,” Muti said of the visit. “Loreto welcomes those who believe and those who do not.”

The German hornist Felix Klieser, who plays with his feet, was soloist in Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 1.

The Basilica, constructed between 1469 and 1587, derives its name (“of the Holy House”) from the small marble home at its center, where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth. The small, ornate building was, further according to legend, carried to Loreto by angels (and it is made of a marble that is found in the Middle East). Today, it enshrines the so-called Black Madonna, a sculpture that portrays her holding baby Jesus beneath a gilded, bejeweled dress.

The program for this year’s “Roads of Friendship” created cross-cultural connections by predominantly featuring works that were written in prayer to the Virgin Mary, from Vivaldi to Verdi, from Havrylec to the Basque song “Agur Maria.” Moreover, the pilgrimage was intended to commemorate Mariupol (“the city of Mary”), which was besieged until Ukrainian forces surrendered to Russia in May, as well as the victims of all wars.

Muti held an open rehearsal on the evening before the concert, which provided a glimpse into his working process. Robotic cameras and metal scaffoldings filled the plaza as the crew of RAI television prepared to record the event for national broadcast. The small audience broke into applause as soon as Muti appeared, which he acknowledged with a friendly wave.

During Vivaldi’s Magnificat (RV 611), Muti then turned around with a forbidding glance (the microphone levels of the contralto, Margherita Maria Sala, had not been properly adjusted). The conductor also took the time to repeat phrases with his youth orchestra until the musicians played with more flexibility. In the “Te Deum” from Verdi’s Quatro pezzi sacri, Muti asked for more lightness from the low male voices — and rehearsed with them until the tone of the joint chorus was vastly improved.

Muti with Loreto officials during a ceremony at the city’s Town Hall.

Most memorable, however, was Muti’s work with a chorus of local children that was gathered to sing the Mozart motet “Ave verum Corpus.” With seemingly boundless energy, Muti descended from the stage to the steps of the Basilica to coach the youngsters as they struggled to sustain the breath of the final lines. Enlisting adult choristers to act as assistant conductors and calling on the organist to play the inner voices of the chords at the base of the melodies, he rehearsed with punctilious attention to detail until it was time to call it a night.

The following day, the concert was introduced with a speech from Ukrainian ambassador Yaroslav Melnyk, who thanked the Italian government and all Italian citizens for the support the country had shown as soon as war broke out. He went on to name Muti a foreign member of the National Academy of Arts of Ukraine, which the conductor called an unexpected honor.

Once on the podium, Muti revealed the generosity of spirit that, alongside an unbending rigor when it comes to musical style, has made him one of today’s most coveted conductors. The musicians of his youth orchestra played with confidence and sensitivity. The soprano Arianna Vendittelli gave a stand-out performance in the Magnificat.

Klieser wrapped his left foot around the horn like a dancer and produced a tone as warm and round as one could hope for. The voices of the untrained children added a layer of innocence to “Ave verum Corpus,” the Black Madonna wheeled out behind them as a symbol of faith, or perhaps hope.

It may have been difficult to repress tears during Havrylec’s “Prayer to the Virgin Mary” (sung in the video above by the Municipal Chamber Choir of Kyiv led by Mykola Hobdych), but the concert achieved its purpose of providing an opportunity to mourn the events of the past years while also contemplating the potential of a society to renew itself. No artistic movement will bring an end to the war in Ukraine, but there will be new roads forward — and inter-cultural understanding may be key to building a better future.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Vienna.