Ravenna is a city which has been inhabited for longer than the Bantu-speaking peoples have been in South Africa. It was here that the Roman Empire finally came to die, when ultimate power in the Western Empire was handed to Theodoric the Goth in the fifth century. The place seems oddly appropriate. Europe is still dreadfully scared of the barbarians at the gate. How else could the Italian people tolerate a fool like Silvio Berlusconi, whose brand of aw-shucks xenophobia-laced-with-slapstick seems to have held the country in stupefied thrall for more than a decade? In defense of the ordinary Italian, however, we must take note of the peculiar Italian political landscape: factionalism, coupled with an inability to hand a particular party a workable majority, giving rise to political horse-trading of the worst kind. For ten years, Berlusconi manipulated the system and worked the angles. Election results were irrelevant. What was relevant was who you knew and what you knew about them.
Berlusconi’s Italy, a nightmare carnival-ride of bad TV, ill-conceived civil engineering, and sensationalist sound-byte rhetoric, seems to have glutted itself on the heritage of those three thousand years of civilization. Like a spoilt trust-fund brat, modern Italy wallows in a trough of brand-name fashion, and cheap and ubiquitous pop music. Berlusconi’s face is the centre of it all: posters for the “Popola della Liberta”, the President’s political party, are visible on every second street corner, while his two-second’s worth of insight (“I’ll kill the man who said that”) makes news ahead of the Kercher murder trial. In Italy, it is quite possible that, upon explaining the situation in South Africa, one is answered with a noncommittal shrug of the shoulder and a sour “Anche qui…”.
All that having been said, they have been playing the violin for a lot longer than most, and when one’s Italian hosts offer to take one to a recital, one does what is expected of one. And so it is I found myself listening to Markus Placci and Roxana Bajdechi, two of the army of European artists who make a living migrating through what seems to be an endless stream of festivals and competitions. Not for the Placci the wedding gig, the TV advertisement, or the corporate function, no! Rather, the “XXVI Premio Biennale Citta di Vittorio Veneto”, the “Premio della Fondazione della Baden-Baden Philharmonie”, and, of course, the “Jules C. Reiner Violin Prize” from Tanglewood!
Not for the Placci the ad-hoc, once-off scratch band for a performance of “Messiah”, no! Instead, the Placci rubs shoulders with l’Orchestra della Radio-Televisione Spagnola, l’Orchestra Teatro Comunale e I Filiamonici del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, l’Orchestra del Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, and similarly grandiose institutions. And yes, perhaps my tone is a little harsh and does smack of sour grapes, but the fact is that South Africans fawn before these creatures with rigorous sycophancy, and do so largely at the expense of local talent.
After all of this, one is led to expect more than one gets. To be fair, this particular Ravennate audience was of the fractious and trying variety. The poor Placci had to put up with whispered commentary throughout most of the performance, and was frustrated in his attempts to start many a movement. The Ravennate evidently lack our South African awe of these artists, and like to remind them that they are, after all, only musicians, and must depend on the coughing, scratching, fiddling, nattering crowd for their bread.
First up was that school-boy exercise, the Dvorak Sonatina in G, op. 100. The Placci snorts and stamps like a race horse. His phrasing is refined, and educated. His intonation impeccable, and educated. His articulation precise, and educated. His tone is bold, impassioned, full, fuller, most full! The piani are belted; so too the dolci. There is much fire, much brimstone, but where is the calm? Where is the simple, childish simplicity this work needs so desperately? And why can’t I hear the piano?
Such questions remain unanswered, hanging in the air, as the Placci tries to put his hacking, spluttering meal ticket out of mind, and turns to the major work of the recital: Enescu’s Sonata no. 3, op 25 “in carattere poplare rumeno”. And here he really shines. Enescu’s strange, beautiful evocation of Romanian folk music is given the DreamWorks treatment. Filigree and CGI bewitch by turns, and the Placci is at home at last. The long, unwavering, sustained note senza vibrato which is so characteristically gypsy is here given in all its shades. Special effects are tackled with appropriate ease, and Placci’s Romanian is evident all too well in the superb rendering of the Romanian gypsy grace-note phrasing so vital to this piece.
The third item on the all-Eastern European program doesn’t please nearly so much. Another school-boy favourite, Bartok’s “Romanian Dances”, Sz. 56, is dusted off for a public airing. One wonders what the Placci was thinking? Both the Dvorak Sonatina and the Romanian dances? Why not throw in the Czardas as well for good measure? In the end, weak programming undid all the sterling effort and real artistry which were put into the Enescu, because once again the Placci is chomping at the bit like it’s the Durban July, and storms through each movement with vicious gusto. By this stage he is appreciably sharper than the piano. Whoa boy! Suddenly, in the fifth movement, the gig is up and it all comes to a crashing climax when he drops his bow. The moral of the story, boys and girls: guts and passion are all well and good, but only in proportion. That is to say: a man cannot live on bread alone.
Brahms next. Two Hungarian dances, one of which is – yes, you’ve probably guessed it by now – that one. Superbly played, replete with much Viennese schwung and Romanian gypsy know-how to boot. Pianist and violinist feel each other beautifully and the audience quite forgets the drama of the Bartok. The audience is suitably appreciative, and an encore, Heifetz-Debussy, is given. More applause. The artists bow. They take one, then two curtain calls. And then, when the audience is rushing the bar for the free champagne and the applause has died down to its lowest yet, they awkwardly emerge for a third. Perhaps it was in the contract.
I’m being harsh, perhaps even unfair, I know. Certainly, I am being impolite. But then again, this is the brave new mosque-bashing Italy of Berlusconi, where you’re either with the racists or the barbarians, and propriety be damned.