By Rebecca Schmid
POMPEI — Standing within the remnants of the Teatro Grande’s ancient stone walls, Riccardo Muti drew relaxed giggles from his ensemble. The Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, joined by players from Jordan and Syria, raised their instruments for the prelude to the second act of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. “Pay attention to the fermata,” he reminded them. The musicians responded with razor-sharp focus. They were soon joined by an oud player, percussionist, and singers of Syrian origin for a composition by Dima Orsho.
Rehearsed in full before the televised event on July 11, the concert was the final stop on this year’s Roads of Friendship, which traveled from the northern Italian city of Ravenna to Jerash, Jordan, before landing in Pompei, a commune of Naples in the southern peninsula, a few hours from Bari, where Muti was born. The annual pilgrimage, an initiative of the Ravenna Festival, which launched in 1997 from Sarajevo, sets out to build cultural bridges to cities affected by war and create lasting bonds through musical exchange. Recent locations have ranged from Kyiv and Tokyo to Teheran and Athens.
In Jerash, the Ravenna Festival made a donation of Western and Middle Eastern instruments to a Syrian refugee camp that has been active for 11 years. (No fewer than 23,000 births have taken place onsite). The undertaking emerged in collaboration with the Italian Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, with further assistance from the Italian Embassy in Amman and the Jordanian-Italian Forum for Cooperation.
For Muti, the program is a vehicle to both preserve Italian musical heritage and explore new modes of intercultural dialogue. This year’s voyage pays tribute to Italian culture in the broadest sense: The South Theatre in Jerash is known as the “Pompei of the East,” inaugurated under the rule of the Roman emperor Domitian in the first century A.D. The preserved ruins of both Pompei and Jerash are testament to a time when the music of different ethnic peoples traveled across the Mediterranean under the aegis of a single empire.
In a talk with the press in Pompei, Muti emphasized the importance of art to the Romans — in spite of the violence that they also perpetuated — and its dissemination. “This bridge was never totally destroyed,” he said, adding the Latin phrase “Pax romana,” which he translated prosaically as a “fusion of civilizations, to give and take.”
He compared the circular shape of the theaters in Pompei and Jerash to a kind of embrace, as opposed to modern architecture in which the performers stand opposite the spectators. The design “signifies being together,” he said. “The audience unites in a hug around the executor. We should return to this sense, as I was recently saying in the U.S.”
The conductor, who last month wound up a 13-year-tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and is now Music Director Emeritus for Life, expressed satisfaction that the Roads of Friendship has brought together people across nations, and not just in the short-term: He has received a subsequent invitation to conduct in Sarajevo. “If a person leaves behind a seed and it is cultivated, it isn’t abandoned — it flowers.”
Muti’s effect on musicians is as much a human force as it is a musical one. The cellist Fadi Hanna Ibrahim Harrar said that, in rehearsal, “he doesn’t talk only about how to play but how you feel when you play.” The conductor is less concerned with wrong notes than “the spirit of how it goes,” he said. “And not anyone can do this. It takes someone like Muti.”
At the same time, the conductor achieves results through unbending rigor. “He knows every detail of the poetry,” said Harrar, “the music, all the dynamics. It’s scary. You learn from how disciplined he is. That’s a big step for any musician to connect with other musicians who they don’t know, and he does this really easily, from the first rehearsal.”
Valentina Benfenati, the concertmaster of the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, said that Muti is at once demanding, kind, and genuinely funny (“He makes jokes that really make you laugh”). She also emphasized that the Roads of Friendship provides an opportunity to learn first-hand about other cultures that one would not normally encounter.
For the violinist, the “essence” of this year’s trip took place in Jerash, when the conductor interrupted the introduction to the aria “Casta Diva” (from Bellini’s Norma) as the sound of a muezzin singing a prayer wafted into the outdoor theater. “It was an optimal experience to hear this music,” she said.
The concert program as such, heard in Pompei, brought together Western Classical and Syrian music in poetic and often convincing ways. Dima Orsho’s Ula-ikal Mansiyouna ala difaf al furat (The forgotten along the river Euphrates) sings of an “afflicted heart, in which there is neither a city nor a fortress.” The piece is built on intoxicating Middle Eastern rhythms, with string pizzicati subtly accompanying the solos of countertenor (Razek-François Bitar), mezzo-soprano (Mirna Kassis), oud (Saleh Katbeh), and percussion (Elias Aboud).
The second act of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice also features a countertenor (here, the expressive Filippo Mineccia) underscored by pizzicato strings. “Furies, larvae, disdainful shadows!” the character responds to the menacing chorus as he enters a grotto behind the river Cocytus. Muti’s careful work with the orchestra, soloist, and chorus (Coro Cremona Antiqua) was evident in sensitive dynamic shadings, the incisiveness of certain phrases, and imagination with which the music was rendered.
Always eager to nurture up-and-coming young artists as part of the Roads of Friendship, Muti took a risk with the Cuban American soprano Monica Conesa as Norma. She brought a burnished tone and convincing expression to the iconic aria “Casta Diva” but on a couple of occasions rushed the end of phrases because of insufficient breath support, and her intonation was not always perfect. The final lines were smoldering, however, and the orchestra’s use of rubato under Muti was as satisfying as ever.
The ensemble also formed a cohesive whole for Ehkeeli Aan Baladi (Tell me about your country) under the direction of violinist Basel George Saba Theodory, who took the seat as concertmaster, setting the rhythm with his bow. Following a traditional Muwashah, Muti returned the podium for Brahms’ Schicksalslied. The work for orchestra and chorus ended with an intensity that fittingly tied together the program exploring fate, mortality, love, and the meaning of home: “We are not granted a site to rest…like water thrown from cliff to cliff.” A universal message, trite as it may sound, for both those on earth and the spirits wandering above.