It’s Spring-time for Music too in Lucca

Scorpion bites (in that garden shed, of course – must have moved in after the hungry hornets – see post at couldn’t drag me away from the very kind invite of Maestro Francesco Cipriano, founder of the “Lucca Musica” magazine, for which I provide the English bits, to attend the opening concert of the twelfth  Lucca in Musica season organized the Associazione Musicale Lucchese ( which, founded by the great Herbert Handt, now celebrates its golden jubilee.

Thanks to the chauffeuring skills of Bagni di Lucca’s English choirmistress we got to the Teatro Del Giglio where we were accommodated in a fine first tier box.

The season opened with the Italian Youth Orchestra ( culled from the best young players Italy can muster and founded in 1980 by Piero Farulli at the Fiesole School of Music. This is an orchestra with no excuses to be made for the youth of its players, Give the seal of approval by Riccardo Muti, it astounds both nationally and internationally with the high level of its playing and the acute understanding of its interpretations.

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No less praise goes to its guest conductor, US-born John Axelrod, who, after a conducting career covering over 150 of the best European and world orchestras, was appointed in 2011 as Principal Conductor of Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano, Giuseppe Verdi.

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The evening, dedicated entirely to Wagner and Tchaikovsky, opened with the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The timbre and interpretation of the orchestra, as guided by Axelrod, was immediately apparent. Clarity of line, where each instrumental texture could be easily discerned, and with no unwanted rhetorical gestures or emotional dissipations, was the hallmarks of the performance and clearly added to the greatness of the music. If it’s not in the score why put it there?

In a depressed frame of mind, as he invariably was much of the time, and with severe composer’s block, Tchaikovsky asked his friend Balakirev what he should write next. “Why, of course, something on ‘Romeo and Juliet’!” replied Mily.

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Which is what Pyotr did but not in the form we know today!

The first performance of the first version was interrupted by students protesting about the outcome of a court case involving his friend Nikolai Rubinstein and a female student (I shall not go into the intimate details here). The incident proved much more interesting to the audience that the première, of which Tchaikovsky wrote: “after the concert we dined…. No one said a single word to me about the overture the whole evening. And yet I yearned so for appreciation and kindness”.

Poor fellow!

This first version can be heard on youtube at

It’s a fascinating experience but I think the composer was right to go for improvements. Perhaps that court case did have its positive side.

In fact, Tchaikovsky re-wrote his Romeo and Juliet twice again, reusing the main themes but reworking them differently and in different places

For the ending of the second version see Youtube at

The third and final version, now known as the “Fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet”, is the one we know and love today. I actually wish dear Pyotr had written a fourth version with just one minor difference- that the music ended sweetly and softly as it should, not with those bloody brass chords and throbbing kettle-drums at the end. Indeed, I cut them off in my MP3 version.

Part of the greatness of Russia’s greatest composer’s genius is the way the best romantic theme ever written makes its first appearance in the exposition without a single soft string. Its omission in the development section then adds that extra weight to its reappearance in the recapitulation with all the mellowest strings it can muster (and who could resist that lilting horn accompaniment?). It’s truly a wallowing, melting experience covering one’s emotions like the softest balm on the skin.

After the interval I was particularly interested in hearing how Axelrod would gather his young army in Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. It’s easy to divide Tchaikovsky’s symphonies into two halves – the earlier and more conventional Russian numbers 1-3 ,and the later more emotionally fraught no’s 4-6. (Some bright spark has reconstructed a number 7 but it doesn’t convince me.)

After the forceful themes of no 4 Tchaikovsky felt very despondent about his number 5. “It’s a failure even before it’s performed. It’s uninspired and devoid of creative freshness”. The symphony was composed in 1888 and first performed in Moscow in November 17 of the same year.

To say the truth, Symphony no 5 does start up rather despondently but watch how that most lugubriuous of themes – a real leitmotiv – lightens up and, after one movement, more beautiful and spontaneous than the preceding one, ends in a real blaze of fireworks and Russian festivities. Yes there is hope, even for Tchaikovsky. Such a pity about the way he died, however! I felt this was the best performance by the orchestra that evening and merited an encore which turned out to be that war horse, the ride of Valkyries – again superbly played, especially by the brass section.

Axelrod and the Orchestra Giovanile provided an exciting start to the season. He knows he’s got a great youthful orchestra under his thumb (he uses no baton) and his young battalion deserved every kiss and embrace he gave them at the end of a superb evening.

It’s a great pity that I missed out on Eugene Onegin at Teatro San Carlo in Naples last month if Axelrod’s Tchaikovsky is as convincing as this.






2 thoughts on “It’s Spring-time for Music too in Lucca

  1. Francis! I’m so glad the scorpion sting wasn’t bad enough to keep you away from a concert. Thanks, too, for your always individual and perceptive musical comments – cutting the ending off the Romeo and Juliet piece! – not to mention your architectural and historic ones as well. There will be a statue of you in Lucca one day!

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