The Italian Job

High above the rooftops of Turin, my red state of the art Mini Cooper screams around the high raked corner of the Formula One racing track, steering heavy in my gloved hands with the weight of the gold bars stashed in the boot.

Either side of me two identical minis in white and blue keep formation, a wailing police car and motorbike in hot pursuit immediately behind, the roar of our race-tuned engines almost drowning out the cacophony of the worst traffic jam in Italian history below us, carefully choreographed as part of the heist.

The getaway is going to plan. Millions of lire and a 60s fantasy girlfriend in leather mini skirt and kinky boots await me out of shot. They’re mine. All mine.

Oh yes.

Actually, they’re Michael Caine’s at this point in the movie, but I’m standing on the exact spot this scene of the Italian Job was filmed in 1969, the racetrack unchanged on the roof of the former Fiat factory, and am gazing out at the spectacular mountain-edged panorama spread out on all sides.

The devastating sexiness of the young Michael Caine has always been something of a mystery to me, that sandy colouring never really my thing. It must be something to do with his mastery of screen acting, so vividly described in those fantastic film acting master classes he did for the Beeb.

“You have to remember”, said La Caine in that famous deadpan accent, “that when your face is 30 foot high and 65 foot wide, then a sudden sideways move of the eyes is a very big event indeed.” He advised aspiring movie actors not to bed the leading lady until shooting is over. “It gets tricky if you have to make passionate love to her on camera if you’ve just dumped her off set”.

Or words to that effect.

In the centre of the track behind me is a space age glass building, containing twenty-five of the world’s most expensive paintings.The Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli is a civilised tube ride away from the centre of town, and hidden away at the top of the vast faceless shopping centre, replete with Zaras and H&Ms, that now dominates the brutal industrial spaces of the famous Lingotto building .

Architectural pioneer Le Corbusier called it “one of the most impressive sights in industry” and “a guideline for town planning”. Although it must have been pretty avant-garde when construction started in 1916, I found the Lingotto a rather soulless place except for the art-packed gem on the racing roof. After winning a national competition for the complete overhaul of the former factory, Genoese architect Renzo Piano created the Agnelli building along with a concert hall, conference centre, theatre and other utilitarian public spaces within the complex, and building work was completed in 1989.

A pretty impressive use of a defunct industrial site when all said and done.

The Agnelli’s prize Modigliani nude, “Nu Couché” (1917). What married man would stand a chance locked in a room with this seductress?

I’ve never really got Canaletto and his endless Venetian scenes, but the six in the Agnelli are showstoppers, blazing with exquisite detail, a fascinating window into the fantasy grandeur of a bygone age, hanging feet away from seven Matisse masterpieces, a couple of stunning blue Picassos and hardcore Italian futurist scapes by Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini.

Superbly displayed, the small but seriously classy Agnelli collection leaves one happily sated, like going to a short concert of marvellous music beautifully performed.

With a completely different kind of sexiness, Renoir’s ravishing nude cries out to be impregnated, tender flesh oozing lactal potential. “La Baigneuse Blonde” (1882), oil on canvas, Agnelli collection (although I would say she’s more of a redhead).

Meanwhile, my colleagues are living their art and finding the best possible food in town. It’s a mark of true muso professionalism to have found truffle chianti ravioli nirvana on the hop, and many have become adepts in the art of high living on tour with extremely limited free time.

I’ve singularly failed on this trip, and guiltily make do with a dodgy fusion menu in an al fresco café outside tonight’s venue in the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi. In antipasti Mecca, it’s definitely a mark of shame to be caught eating samosas Bolognese, zucchini guacamole and curry al zalmone…

“The British musician that has best succeeded in building upon the legacy of his masterful predecessor” is perhaps not how everyone would think of George Benjamin in relation to Benjamin Britten, but nevertheless GB is gamely living up to the flowery festival PR and carving BB’s Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings with John Mark Ainsley in effortlessly glorious voice, and Mike Thompson nailing the outrageously scary horn solo and successfully negotiating the dicey off-stage opening and shutting doors exit business.

Any tenor worth his salt knows he has to command the audience with an actively silent Tragic Presence to prevent tumultuous early applause drowning out the closing horn solo in this piece, a strategy carried out with terrifying efficacy by JM Ainsley the previous night in Milan.

A crazy fish eye view of the celebrated Turin Conservatoire concert hall, which is rather marvellous in a faded gilt corniced grandeur sort of way. 

Goodness this piece contains such beautiful and brilliantly constructed music! It’s enough to neutralise any negative effects of the endless BB centenary shenanigans. Call me a softy, but my fave movement is the penultimate Sonnet with those heartrending minor seconds, dark creeping harmonies and devastating Keats poem, To Sleep:

“O soft embalmer of the still midnight/ ….. /   Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards / And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.”

Along with the Britten, George Benjamin is conducting the Sniffers (aka London Sinfonietta) playing one of his early works At first light (1982), and later pieces Upon Silence (1991) and Three Inventions (1995).

Well crafted as this music is, especially the delicate gamba textures of Upon Silence, for me they are developmental stepping stones towards his truly extraordinary recent accomplishment, Written on Skin, a new opera written with playwright Martin Crimp, performed to full houses and ecstatic critical acclaim all over Europe following its smash hit opening run in Aix en Provence last year.

Bass baritone Christopher Purves getting pervy with newly awakened and disturbed soprano Barbara Hannigan (as the character Agnés, I mean) in Katie Mitchell’s imaginatively sensitive production at Covent Garden earlier this year. 

Somewhere offstage lurks mellifluous counter-tenor Bejun Mehta as The Boy.

Crystalline purity of harmony, achingly beautiful melodic lines and glowing instrumental textures, which include ethereal glass harmonica and bass viola da gamba, fuse with the savagely dramatic content to make this an important and game changing work of art.

If you haven’t already, you HAVE to see this hilarious lip sych video of George Benjamin rehearsing Skin in Aix, made by genius Mono Pop.

Notes matter for George, as is always apparent in his rehearsals. “If you can’t find the harmonic”, he once famously said to Ensemble Modern during a rehearsal, “then get a friend to help”.

Like his other pitch-centric laser-eared composer-conducting colleagues Knussen and Adès, George can be a bit scary in rehearsals: you know he can hear every last detail, and demands perfection.

It’s interesting to speculate that until relatively recently composer/conductors were the norm. Starting, say, with Mendlessohn, there’s then Berlioz, Mahler, Strauss, Furtwängler, Rachmaninov and Webern, to mention but a few; then Igors Stravinsky and Markevitch; the Boulez and Maderna nexus; Peter Ëotvös and Esa Pekka Salonen. In the US, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Andre Previn and Michael Tilson Thomas; and over here one can include Elgar, Britten, those mentioned already, James Macmillan and Richard Baker.

Incidentally, I’ve just found this rather interesting article on British composer/arranger/conductors by Philip Scowcroft, which fills in some gaps. Worth a look.

One must remember that amongst my (incomplete) list of composer-conductors, there are considerably varying degrees of composer and of conductor, not to mention pianist.

By all accounts, B. Britten was a highly accomplished conductor. You can tell from the recordings.

Composers are more likely to intuit structure, form and harmony as well as have the X-ray ears needed to balance textures during rehearsal. Birtwistle said he was delighted to have his recent Covent Garden Minotaur production conducted by new composer/conductor/pianist kid on the block Ryan Wigglesworth for exactly that reason.

But a spot of stick technique does make a vast difference, as anyone who has tried to follow the upbeat-less jabbing of a composer floundering amidst his own rhythmic invention.

It always amazes me how bad many composers physical sense of rhythm and pulse is, an embarrassing fact that can pop out in rehearsals and most spectacularly, education workshop warmup games (not that you’d ever see a clave-bearing Furtwängler at one of these). Even a basic 5/8 is often out of reach for many who customarily write 19 in the time of 42 for breakfast.

Just because you can compose doesn’t necessarily mean that you can conduct…

On the other side of the conducting fence, Arthur Nikisch was the godfather of modern performer conducting (although he too composed a bit at the beginning), creating new attitudes to technique and orchestral discipline. A later and unfortunate off-shoot of this school was a new breed of career conductor famously reviled by Stravinsky for the musically ignorant and egotistical emoting that, one has to admit, does pop up with alarming frequency on the modern podium.

Arthur Nikisch 1855 – 1922, a guiding light for many of the world’s great conductors including Arturo Toscanini, Leopold  Stokowski, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir John Barbirolli, Fritz Reiner and George Szell.

Tchaikovsky marvelled at Nikisch’s “mesmeric” powers in front of an orchestra, and Brahms said that Nikisch’ performance of his fourth symphony was “quite exemplary. It’s impossible to hear it any better.”

Unlike the careerist “great conductor” type that so incensed Stravinsky, Nikisch was known for his thorough analysis of the score, small precise beat and giving cues with his eyes. I love Stravinsky’s conductor rant so much that I’m going to have to quote some of it. Skip three paragraphs if you’re not in the mood or are an insecure performer conductor:

“Conducting” said Stravinsky in his famous essay on the subject, “like politics, rarely attracts original minds, and the field is more for the making of careers and the exploitation of personalities – another resemblance to politics – than a profession for the application of exact and standardized discipline. A conductor may actually be less well equipped for his work than his players, but no one except the players need know it, and his career is not dependent on them in any case, but on the society women (including critics) to whom his musical qualities are of secondary importance.”

“The successful conductor can be an incomplete musician, but he must be a complete angler. His first skill has to be power politics. In such people the incidence of ego disease is naturally high to begin with, and I hardly need add that the disease grows like a tropical weed under the sun of a pandering public.”

“The results are that the conductor is encouraged to impose a purely egotistical, false, and arbitrary authority, and that he is accorded a position out of all proportion to his real value  in the musical, as opposed to the music-business, community. He soon becomes a “great” conductor, in fact, or as the press agent of one of them recently wrote me, a “titan of the podium,” and as such is very nearly the worst obstacle to genuine music-making.”

“If you are incapable of listening, the conductor will show you what to feel ….. and if you are able, you had better not go to the concert.”

Igor had a point, but it’s a fascinating and complex matter for which this particular Z Blog has now, perhaps thankfully, run out of space.

Back in Turin, George Benjamin’s scrupulous attention was given not just to notes, but also shoes. Completely out of sync with his usual lavender tones, GB turned up to rehearsal in THESE.

Leading me to that all important style question:

GAY OR EUROPEAN?

Graham Norton once sent TV minions out into the streets of central London to ask unsuspecting yet stylish male victims exactly that question (a marvelous game repeated here in the studio). At what point does the man bag cease to be manly? Can the 3/4 length pastel trouser ever look heterosexual? Is suede an essentially gay fabric?

The questions are endless.

Also sporting red shoes but with Transatlantic, rather than strictly European glamour, American mezzo Lucy Schaufer gave a stonking rendering of the notoriously difficult Upon Silence.

Fresh from the critically acclaimed success of her new album Carpentersville, Lucy not only gave her pre-concert press interview in Italian, but also introduced me to this controversial Milanese breakfast item.

Sleep had been hard to come by in the former evil Milan orphanage now hotel housing weary Sniffers. More disquieting than the troubled ghosts of tormented children whispering through the hotel’s long corridors, the door of the room next to mine suddenly shot open at 2am and the conversation of two horny colleagues, clearly the worse for wear, projected unequivocally through the paper thin walls.

The journey from emotion-provoking argument to full seduction was almost too much to bear, and by 5am it had become way too late to intervene with dignity. A few sleepless hours later, the only way forward was Great Art and I headed straight for the Pinacoteca di Brera, one of Milan’s most dazzling art collections, via a couple of tear jerkingly perfect espressos.

Graham Norton may have had something to say about this 14th century fresco, discovered in the fabulous Brera. Note ankle chain.

As Thomas Blaikie, author of unmissable blog “Adrian Edge, Day by Day” says of this particular saint: “Appears to have been martyred by own frockage. Terrible draperies to control and brutal corset.”

Joining me at the Brera is one of the most intelligent and musically gifted people I know, meta-violinist David Alberman, former Hard Hitti (Arditti 4tet) member and now an LSO principal, guest leading the band for this mini tour.

He possesses a humour of such devastating dryness you have to remove the olives to check it’s for real. “Desperates on, lads”, I fondly remember him say during a film session in his flat north London tones.

It’s a difficult humour to capture in words, so I’ll stop trying right away.

Anyway, he was a top person to bump into, his fluent Italian aiding instant filleting of difficult Icons and mid-range Virgins in order to find a particular fave of mine, Giorgio Morandi, an artist who spent a fair amount of his life painting the same row of bottles.

1941 still life by Giorgio Morandi, oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum, New York. Alas I couldn’t find you a pic of the one in the Brera, but you get the idea.

As the years went by, the relationship between object and the space around it becomes more and more ambiguous in Morandi’s work, until eventually the two start to merge into a soft Is-ness, reminding me of Van Gogh.

Incidentally, I took my 14 year old niece around Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago, and forced her to see Great Art. On standing in front of one of those late great Van Gogh self portraits, searing psychotic insight and burning icy aura radiating from his crazed hypnotic stare, my niece put her head thoughtfully on one side for a moment and asked me:

“Do you think the pattern on that frame matches my new top?’

A question that may have been received more warmly in Milan at that moment, given it was fashion week. Amidst the usual Milanese throng of tiny immaculately dressed people on Vespas, the hard core fashionistas were surprisingly hard to spot.

Perhaps they’d have had something to say about what JC is wearing in this early 16th century fresco in the magnificent San Maurizio Al Monastero Maggiore, just up the road from Leonardo’s Last Supper.

Speaking of Virgins, I was brutally attacked by this famous Piero della Francesca (below), purchased from the Brera on an earlier visit, which fell unprovoked from the wall of my former East Dulwich flat, savagely lacerating my leg with broken glass.

The scar’s still there.

A day later, an exquisite early 15th century Van Eyck Virgin did exactly the same thing, narrowly missing a friend of mine who was holding a large pot of scalding coffee at the time.

I took the hint. The Virgins went.

Meanwhile in the cello section, Lionel Handy was telling us about the shocking activities of his serial rapist pet rabbit Roger. Thirteenth in a long line of shaggers, Roger again and again defied hutch security to impregnate the hapless guinea pigs next door, causing great distress to victims, vet and owners alike. As far as I know, Rog’s virility is now impaired by age, but let this story be a warning to all who would avoid distressed bunny pigs.

Reminding me of this apocalyptic South Park episode in which a giant race of killer guinea pigs saves the world from annihilation at the hands of Peruvian Panpipe bands.

During Lionel’s tragic tale, cellist Adrian Bradbury, notorious tour jape-ster, had somehow got into my phone, and for the rest of the trip and beyond I receive abusive misogynist texts from most definitely non-composing conductor Vasily Petrenko. Another Bradbury victim, Bex Herman, found her cello mysteriously chained to a chair when trying to leave a café late one night, and found solace on returning to England by getting a mushroom shaped haircut.

Perhaps Roger might have thought twice about his anti-social activities had he followed the example of this disillusioned intellectual.

Speaking of mushrooms, composer Joby Talbot once found himself in the Radio 3 studio being interviewed by Sean Rafferty alongside Antonio Carluccio. “Ah,” said the maestro of the Tagliatelle Primavera, ‘you write music for dance! I have always wanted to make a ballet about my favourite thing in the whole world, i funghi. The dancers will be dressed as mushrooms.”

Joby’s latest ballet score The Winter’s Tale, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, premieres at Covent Garden in spring 2014. As far as I know, Shakespeare didn’t mention mushrooms.

Mushroom season has begun in Aldeburgh. These parasols, seen heading for the sea, were the size of small dinner plates.

Pinned into an extremely uncomfortable seat in Curzon Soho’s packed Screen 2 a few days later, I’m submerged once again in all things Italian, this time c/o director Paolo Sorrentino’s new masterpiece La Grande Bellezza.

Any Fellini fans will immediately recognise a homage to La Dolce Vita alongside other seminal 20th century Italian master films, and the decadent hopelessness of the moneyed crowd of diehard bohemian intellectuals who spend their nights partying and days botoxing in Sorrentino’s new film are the inheritors of Fellini’s disillusioned Italian materialists, defiantly coking up in Death’s lengthening shadow.

Go see it, if you haven’t already. There are many moments of heart rending beauty and strangeness amidst spectacular images of Rome.

Light plays on the azure waters of a fountain pool overlooking the Coliseum, a giraffe wanders through ancient ruins, an anguished little girl throws paint at a huge canvas for the entertainment of her parents’ glittering guests; an aging stripper emerges from behind a silhouette screen to reveal her fading features in the smoky club light, and the hero, who resembles the Marcello Mastroianni character in Fellini and Antonioni films, superbly played by Toni Servillo, sits in a Mausoleum-like boutique with the most terrifying  designer shop assistants on earth, languidly reciting the rules for a society funeral (which he later breaks):

“It is bad manners to grieve more than the host”.

And everywhere flit sinister nuns and priests. Reminding me of Rebecca West’s marvelous take on nuns in her extraordinarily great literary historical philosophical travel tome about former Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, aptly described by Geoff Dyer as “one of the supreme masterpieces of the 20th century”.

“Nuns”, says West, “are women who have accepted the masculine view of themselves and the universe, who show it by being the only members of their sex who go into fancy dress and wear uniforms as men love to do”.

La Grande Bellezza is a stream of film consciousness, a homage to the inevitable passing of beautiful things, best experienced as soaking in an opulent bath whilst trying to ignore the APPALLING music by Gorecki. What a missed opportunity for a spot of spooky Sciarrino or Dallapiccola for example, or Puccini, goddammit.

But not Stockhausen, who is nevertheless quite likely to feature in the next episode of Z Blog.

Ciao, until then X

Anita Eckberg’s famous gravity-defying moment in the Trevi Fountain, c/o La Dolce Vita