Mercoledi Musicale

It is, I am fully aware, a factor of age – both theirs’ and mine – that so often my Mercoledi Musicale posts in the last while have been to mark the deaths of performers I grew up with. The most recent in the world of classical music was the great German mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig. She died on April 24th at the age of 93 after an international career that spanned over 40 decades. She was as comfortable on the operatic or recital stage as she was on TV variety shows and even tried her hand at musical comedy.

I only saw her in the recital hall back in 1969 at the Salzburg Festival in an all Schumann programme. But checking my programme I find I had scribbled a note that she sang this lovely leid by Franz Schubert as one of her encores.

Two years later, at the 1971 Festival, I thought I’d have the chance to see her on the operatic stage in one of her signature rolls: Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Unfortunately she was experiencing some vocal problems and begged off. A performance from several years earlier that we watched as part of the opera class with my friend David made me feel renewed regret 50 years after that cancellation.

Though she was eventually to sing the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier for many years she was Octavian the young cavalier to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s Marie-Thérèse. I was never a big Betty Blackhead fan but I grew up with the Angel recording of that glorious final trio conducted by Von Karajan with a young Ludwig, Schwarzkopf and Teresa Stich-Randell as Sophie. Try as I might I couldn’t set it to begin at the moment when Sophie and Octavian declare their love. If you’d like to skip to around the 05:39 mark you’ll hear this glorious, almost heavenly, blending of Ludwig and Stich-Randell.

Though she retired from performing in 1993 she continued giving master classes and wrote a book. During a book signing interview in 1999 said that for her “Singing was just a job. I don’t miss it.” Be that is may she did a miraculous job and she will be greatly missed. Rest in Peace dear Christa.

The word for May 5th is:
Job /jäb/: [1. noun 2. verb]
1.1 A paid position of regular employment.
1.2 A task or piece of work, especially one that is paid.
1.3 Informal: A responsibility or duty; A difficult task; a criminal act.
2.1 So casual or occasional work.
2.2 Buy and sell (stocks) as a broker-dealer, especially on a small scale.
2.3 Informal: Cheat or betray; Turn a public office or a position of trust to private advantage.
1620s, from phrase jobbe of worke (1550s) “task, piece of work” (contrasted with continuous labor), a word of uncertain origin. Specific sense of “work done for pay” first recorded 1650s.
I had never heard that last informal verb definition – sounds awfully familiar.

Picnic at Orly

I was sad to read in Sunday morning’s Guardian of the death of Nicola Pagett. A wonderful actress who many will remember from her Elizabeth Belamey (Miss Lizzie) in Upstairs Downstairs and the title role in the BBC Anna Karenina. After a series of breakdowns she retired from performing and later wrote a book about her battle with mental illness. I have an indelible memory of her striding on stage at the Queen’s Theatre in an emerald green gown flourishing a riding crop to confront Alec Guinness’s Jonathan Swift in an “entertainment” called Yahoo!

Nicola Pagett as Stella in “Yahoo!” an entertainment based on the life of Jonathan Swift (Alec Guinness) which I saw at the Queen’s Theatre, London in December of 1976. While searching for this photo I recalled her in this emerald green gown and carrying a riding whip.

But I also have a wonderful memory of a few brief hours I spent with her at Orly Airport back in 1974. I was taking an early morning flight from Paris to London and our flight had one of those creeping delays caused by London fog in February. After three hours Air France decided to give us something to eat – yes airlines did that in those days – and offered us baguette sandwiches with a small split of wine or water. Every bench and seat in the hold room was taken and it was going to be awkward to manage. However a very beautiful lady put her fur coat down on the floor, turned to me and the couple I was chatting with and asked “would you like to join me for a picnic?” When we settled in I realized it was Miss Lizzie! So there we sat on a mink coat in a departure room at Orly picnicking, chatting, laughing, and making the best of a bad situation for the next hour or so. She was charming, funny, and gracious. I’ve never enjoyed a flight delay more.

May she rest in the peace that eluded her for much of her life.

The word for March 9th is:
Picnic /ˈpɪknɪk/: [1. noun 2. verb]
1.1 An occasion when a packed meal is eaten outdoors, especially during an outing to the countryside.
1.2 A packed meal to be eaten outdoors.
2. The action of consuming a packed meal out of doors.
Mid 18th century (denoting a social event at which each guest contributes a share of the food): from French pique-nique, of unknown origin.
Well it wasn’t outdoors but it was the most memorable picnic I’ve every had.

Mercoledi Musicale

It seems every time I open a news site I am greeted by the death of another musical great that I grew up with. What always surprises me is the age of the person in the obituary. How could Ennio Morricone have been 91? I’m only … oh yeah. CTRL+ALT+DELETE!

A graffiti tribute in Rome to Italian composer and conductor Ennio Morricone,
created by artist Harrygrebdesign.

Morricone, who died on Monday, was in the tradition of the great film composers of the 20th century – Nino Rota, Erich Korngold, Dimitri Tiomkin, Bernard Herrmann – a classically trained composer who found fame (and fortune) creating scores for the cinema. And like that brilliant cadre of musicians his film work (almost 400 works for movies/TV/videos) overshadowed his symphonic and choral works.

In fact it was almost impossible to find performances of any of his classical pieces on YouTube. The iconic scores for The Mission, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Cinema Paradiso et al are all represented but not one of his classical compositions showed up. So as a tribute I thought I’d go with three of the better known Morricone themes played on a very unusual instrument: the Theremin. Rather than try and explain the intricacies of Leon Theremin’s invention I suggest a left click on the link in the previous sentence.

Carolina Eyck performs “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly – the movie that introduced Morricone to a wider audience in 1966.

Staying with the western theme, two years later Morricone composed the theme for Once Upon a Time in the West performed in concert by Katica Illényi with the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra led by István Silló.

It took a bit of searching but luckily I came upon Tristesse Noir’s performance of the haunting “Gabriel’s Oboe” from the beautiful score of The Mission (1986), a film that, on first seeing, moved me to tears several times. Part of that emotional impact was Morricone’s brilliant score – a mixture of traditional Spanish music of the period and indigenous themes and instrumentation.

The word of July 8th is:
Obituary /ōˈbiCHəˌwerē/: [noun]
A notice of a death, especially in a newspaper, typically including a brief biography of the deceased person.
Early 18th century first meaning “register of death” (1706) then “announcement of a death” (1738): from medieval Latin obituarius, from Latin obitus ‘death’, from obit- ‘perished’, from the verb obire .

Mercoledi Musicale

It seems that every day or two I hear of the death of someone I grew up listening to or seeing in the musical or theatrical world. Earlier this week Mirella Freni the great lyric soprano died in her hometown of Modena.

I first saw her name in a Glydndebourne programme book back in 1960 where she appeared as Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I was to see her in that role nine years later at Salzburg conducted by Herbert Von Karajan. It was Von Karajan who convinced her to move from soubrette roles to the more lyric when he conducted her as Mimi La Boheme at La Scala in 1963. I received her 1964 recording of my favourite Puccini work from my brother and sister-in-law that Christmas. A version that I treasure to this day. Then a film of the Scala production – a major achievement of a young and inspired Franco Zeffirelli – appeared for one night only at the old Imperial Theatre and I was downtown for that one in a flash. Here, from that film, is Freni at her most lyrical telling us of the simple story of Lucia who is called Mimi. And for me she was to be forever Mimi.

Two years after the Don Giovanni I was to see her, again at Salzburg, in Verdi’s Otello. Karajan was taking her into heavier territory – but very much on her own terms – and gone was the flirtatious peasant girl. She was a proud daughter of La Serenissima facing up to the power house that was the Otello of Jon Vickers. For all the beauty of their love duet and drama of their riveting Act III confrontation it was her prayer to the Virgin as Desdemona prepares for bed, and subconsciously her death, that stays in the mind.

Requiem in pace cara Mirella; oggi canti con gli angeli!

The word for February 12 is:
Obligurate /unavailable/: [obscure verb]
Probably means to spend time in feasting
Etymology: irregular from Latin obligūrīre, from ob- ligūrīre to be dainty, lick, lick up.
1623 – The English Dictionarie, or an Interpreter of hard English Words, Henry Cockeram: Obligurate, to spend in belly-cheere.

Butterflies Are Free

I have remarked more than once that many of my posts of late mark the passing of people I grew up listening to, reading about, or seeing. Last evening another legend of dance fluttered into the wings: Alicia Alonso. She overcame incredible odds both personally and politically to become one of the greats of the latter part of the 20th century. Her story is a remarkable one and has been well-rehearsed in the many obituaries that are now appearing world-wide.

Alicia Alonso as Giselle with her long-time dance partner Igor Youskevitch. They were the iconic vision of Romantic ballet in my young mind.

I remember pictures of her as Giselle in the ballet books I took out of our local library when I was not yet in my teens. She was the iconic image of the classical ballerina, often shown with Igor Youskevitch, her most frequent partner. Unfortunately I never saw her on stage only on film which though it captured her technique perhaps missed some of that stage magic, that aura that captivated everyone who saw her. My dear Simonetta was fortunate to see her perform, if only briefly, and wrote a lovely reminiscence that she is allowing me to share.


The ballet community is expressing its sadness on the passing of 98-year-old Alicia Alonso because no ballet lover was filled with anything but awe and deference towards this legend of a ballerina and it is in the human nature to wish to preserve for ourselves all that we (mistakenly) feel “belongs” to us – whether our worldly belongings, the fleeting moment, or those human beings that we love and admire. Yet it would be wise to realise that love and respect mean letting go and allowing those who have lived long and successful lives to break out of their chrysalises which in waning years aren’t always the best of abodes. When my beloved mother passed away 17 years ago, I imagined her as a butterfly that had emerged from the body of an aging lady to fly away into newfound youth and beauty. I wept for my bereaved self, but I was happy for my butterfly of a mother. The idea of the liberated spirit being akin to a butterfly has led to a succession of thoughts today which strangely link together Alonso and my darling son Simon D’Aquino and which I share with you.

Simonetta at a dance event with the 92 year old Alicia Alonso (centre) in 2012.

The great Cuban ballerina last appeared on stage in Rome with the Cuban National Ballet at the Teatro Nazionale, I believe in 1995. I was still a ballet critic in those days and had been invited to the premiere but that night I could not find a babysitter for my little Simon who wasn’t yet even 3 years old, even younger than in the photo below. I realised that this would probably be my last chance to see Alonso perform (well, she was almost eighty – I saw her again in 2012, but not on stage). I was loath to miss the show so I made the snap decision to take my little toddler with me and hope for the best: he might just nod off, I thought, or if he was going to snivel and whimper, I’d just get up and leave – but I’d give it a try.

My dear Simonetta with her son Simon who at this stage was already a confirmed balettomane.

When I got to the theatre it was fully booked but my Simon was so small he could sit on my lap and, being in baby-friendly Italy, they let me in with him. It was a mixed bill, the apotheosis of which was a ballet in which Alonso, wearing an unlikely costume as a butterfly, appeared briefly – propped up by a couple of porteurs – to do a bit of fluttering and enthrall the audience in spite of her advanced age. My little Simon didn’t go to sleep at all: he sat wide-eyed and transfixed as he watched Alicia and her dancers. I mused that one day an elderly Simon would be able to tell the young that he had seen the great Alicia Alonso dance – and it would sound as mythical as when Alberto Testa (who has also recently passed away) used to say that he had seen the legendary Anna Pavlova dance!

Simon d’Aquino as Peter Ryabovsky in a staging of Chekov’s short-story The Butterfly at the Barons Court Theatre in London.

That evening was the beginning of Simon’s love affair with ballet and the theatre in general. From then on he would come with me to see ballets, operas, and plays of all descriptions and, when he finished his schooling, he chose to study drama and embark on an acting career. Yesterday Alonso, who two-year-old Simon had seen as a butterfly, flew away. Tonight Simon debuts at the Barons Court Theatre, London in a play based on a short story by Anton Chekhov. Simon has the star role, that of the bohemian painter Peter Ryabovsky. Oh, I forgot to mention: the play is called…THE BUTTERFLY.

Tonight I have two wishes. One that the great Alicia Alonso rest in peace. The second is for Simon – in bacca al lupo!

October 18th is National No Beard Day – something that doesn’t apply to either Simon or I. It’s also National Chocolate Cupcake day which may!

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