Thursday, May 10, 2012

Roots of Spring

After an abysmal winter, the arrival of spring, with its inspiring explosion of color in the countryside, has helped alleviate the depression fostered by too much time reading the news. On top of that, a series of fortuitous coincidences has brought me closer to my roots.

Rummaging back through my old high school yearbook, I find little mention of my activities there. While more ambitious kids were listed as being on the Student Council, the varsity football team, the Spanish or German club, the yearbook staff, or an endless number of other organizations devised to allow each student the opportunity to compile an impressive resumè of extracurricular activities, I was dutifully recorded as having been a door holder, and my future plans were listed as “undecided”. We each had a quotation affixed to our name. Mine read “I wish I might show the world how to enjoy itself”. Whether this was written by a magically prescient classmate, or was simply a comment generated by my precocious tendency to abuse alcohol, I've never been sure. Since my academic performance was little better than my extracurricular curriculum, it's a wonder that I did get admitted to the college of my choice, but then, that college did have something of a reputation as a party school, and perhaps they saw in me some potential. Indeed, while never destined to be student body president, I did get to be social chairman of my fraternity. In that capacity I tried to organize theme parties and was routinely frustrated by the members failing to show up in sufficiently imaginative costumes. It's gone on that way over a lifetime, in which I've encouraged people to cut loose on Fire Island, go to jazz festivals, and visit Umbria. In recent years I've pushed our growing contingent of foreign residents to get together at the Circolo of Acqualoreto every Wednesday for a happy hour. While it's a hit or miss operation, it's proven more successful than some previous efforts, such as my ill-fated attempt to organize a bocce tournament in the village. Only people from Ireland, Australia and Bermuda participated in significant numbers. Actually, they are also active supporters of the Happy Hour. Very few Italians!

Every now and then, there is some unanticipated success. Once upon a time in my first grade class there was a little girl named Barbara Boo Boo Bagg. She was the cutest girl in the class. As she matured, BooBoo became simply Boo and she remained the cutest girl in the school. While I hadn't seen her for four decades, I have spoken with her, and her affable husband Dick, numerous times by phone, always suggesting that they visit Umbria. One year, on her birthday, I even emailed her a digital file of “BooBoo's Birthday” by Thelonious Monk, whose own daughter Barbara was also known as BooBoo. Miracle of miracles- this year Boo and Dick came to see Umbria. I suggested they come to visit us on a Wednesday so that they could come to our Happy Hour, but after a morning of sight-seeing and an afternoon of eating, drinking wine and talking, Boo was too concerned about their navigating the narrow and sinuous roads back to their lodgings on Mt. Subasio in the dark. We had a good turnout that evening and it was a shame that they missed it. At a certain age, I suppose we should all learn such prudence, and I pledge to work at it sometime soon.

At another of our Happy Hours last September, I met a man named Peter Prinssen, who was a guest of some of our Dutch neighbors up the hill in Morruzze. Having noted my Dutch name, Peter wrote to ask if I would be interested in knowing more about my family history. Apparently all this sort of information is now on the internet in Holland. I sent him what I already knew and in short order he got back to me with considerably more detailed information on the De Graaf family, as well as some information about my grandmother's family in Friesland. More may still be coming. The miracle of Google Maps brought me pictures of both places of family origin and renewed curiosity about why they left. Did somebody do something bad? I suppose most emigration is about economic opportunity. Why else would anybody move to to Houston for example, or why from a the tidy village of Goedereede on the island of Goeree-Overflakkee to Paterson, New Jersey? For that matter, my neighbors and I now live in what we regard as an earthly paradise, only because the area was abandoned after WWII by people fleeing the drudgery of work in the fields for new opportunities working in urban factories.

One of our neighbors here, Lin Widmann, has a daughter Christy who lives in Holland. Last week, between them, and with the help of the Circolo, they arranged a choral concert in the church of Acqualoreto. The group, Doulce Memorire, directed by Felix van den Hombergh, is from Haarlem and was starting a concert tour of Umbria, singing works by Dutch composers from medieval times to the present. The voices of the twelve men and twelve women of the chorus were merged, contrasted and woven together brilliantly. Much of the music, at least on first hearing, didn't seem to me memorable in its own right, but served as a vehicle for the beauty of the voices. During a brief interval, four members of the chorus played a series of wind instruments, three flutes and a bassoon, I believe. The counterpoint was delightful. Following that came the highlight of the concert, an absolutely mesmerizing rendition of Joep Franssens' modern piece, “Harmony of the Spheres”. It's a long droning work with rising and falling voices and pulsing sounds generated by the close harmonies. The acoustics of the church worked well with this music and the effect was spectacular.

After the concert, the members of the chorus walked through the village, paused for a drink at the Circolo bar and went on to a supper, provided by the Circolo, at the ex- school. I have fond memories of my Dutch forebears but if truth be told, they were a dour group. Not these! During the long meal, various groups of them would spontaneously break into song. It was a very happy evening for all of us there. The only slightly sad note of the evening was that the very enthusiastic audience was not a bit larger.

Three days later, to celebrate May Day and the fifth anniversary of the Circolo, another choral group of the same size, the Coro Nomantum from Rome, gave a concert in the piazza. The director was pleased by the acoustics of the piazza, but a piazza is neither a church nor an auditorium and a little of the force and the majesty of the sound is lost in singing the traditional music outdoors. They sung works dating from 1200 through the 1500's to Mozart before turning to modern songs such as Paul Simon's Sound of Silence, Twist and Shout and Barbaram. There was a novelty number about cats and birds in which the lead cat was a girl wearing sunglasses which turned bright green when she raised her head to the light as she meowed. Nice effect! The group has fun with the pop songs but their best work was the Mozart. This concert was well attended, especially considering the weather, which had threatened rain all day but fortunately held off. There was free food following the concert, the universal secret to boosting attendance at events which should, but don't always, attract people on their own merits.

Two days later we went to another choral concert, this time in Todi, by the Chorus of the University of Perugia. This was another return to our roots in a sense because two of our daughters sang in this group while at the University and we still knew a few of the participants. Again, the program was varied, with a progression somewhat similar to that of the Nomentum concert. It differed in that it featured a soprano soloist and the chorus consisted of twenty-two women and eleven men. Some numbers were sung by the women alone or the men alone or just by the soloist. They opened with Tourdion by P. Attaignant, a piece which showed off the counterpoint between the sections better than anything else in the concert. An English drinking song sung by the men alone didn't sound robust enough for a drinking song, and I'm not an enthusiast of the music of Donizetti or Bellini. Verdi's Coro dei Schiavi Ebrei was splendid, after which they turned to more recent music by Jobim, Gershwin, and the Beach Boys. Yes, this chorus too, did Barbara Ann, or Barbaram as it sounds to me. They were a little livelier with it than the Romans but their best moments with the modern music came with Siyahamba, an African piece which played the male and female voices off against each other very well, and a brilliant arrangement of Ennio Morriconi's music for the film “C'era una Volta il West” The soprano, Elena Vigorito, soared over the combined voices of the chorus to wonderful effect. The arrangement was by the piano player, Francesco Andreucci, a native of Todi. They sang in the Sala del Consiglio, a magnificent room, which is a joy simply to sit in. This was a free concert in this gorgeous room, well publicized in Todi, a city of possibly 15,000 people. There was a bigger crowd at the concert in the piazza of Acqualoreto, population +/- 150. Nevertheless, the small audience was very appreciative. My wife was ecstatic, and wants to bring them to Acqualoreto for a concert. I will try to make it happen.

The saying goes “you can lead a horse to water but you can't make her drink.” That's the story of my life, except that I deal with people, not horses. Getting them to drink isn't usually so hard. Getting them to eat is even easier. It's getting them to listen, where it really gets to be difficult.