mon 15/07/2024

theartsdesk in La Foce: War and Peace in Val d'Orcia | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in La Foce: War and Peace in Val d'Orcia

theartsdesk in La Foce: War and Peace in Val d'Orcia

Musical youth and experience gather in one of the world's most beautiful landscapes

Saleem and Nabeel Abboud Ashkar (standing left and right) with Palestinian and Jewish Israeli students of the Polyphony Foundation at Villa La FoceFestival people by Paul Flanagan. Festival places by David Nice

“If this isn’t nice, what is?” Kurt Vonnegut’s vow to repeat his Uncle Alex’s mantra when things were going “sweetly and peacefully” has been much on my mind during various idylls this war-torn summer. It certainly applied to hearing three boys and a girl in their early teens play a cloudless early Haydn string quartet in the beautifully restored small neoclassical theatre of a perfect Umbrian hill town.

But as so often with troubles elsewhere always at the back of our minds, nothing was quite that simple.

Concert in Citta della Pieve by Paul FlanaganThe young people were totally focused on the work in a performance of astonishing subtlety and nuance. But between rehearsals and performance their thoughts – as Palestinian and Jewish Israelis of the Nazareth-based Polyphony Foundation whose driving force Nabeel Abboud Ashkar I interviewed along with his pianist brother Saleem last week – had been much with their families at home during the latest Gaza crisis. (Pictured: performance of the Dvořák Piano Quintet in Città della Pieve's Teatro degli Avvaloranti.) And the nerve-centre of the Incontri di Terra di Siena festival, which had welcomed them and other musical youth groups, is the Villa La Foce looking over the now-peaceful Val d’Orcia, a harsh valley and major route from north to south in Italy the few settlements of which have been devastated over the centuries by Goths, Florentines and Germans.

Locanda ToscaniniMany buildings in this most beautiful borderland of Tuscany and Umbria have seen their share of horror. The Locanda Toscanini (pictured left) in the small town of Piazze where I was staying owes its name to the beneficiary of a happy cure: the great conductor came here in the early 1930s to seek alternative therapy – cortisone injections –  for shoulder arthritis. But the remarkable homeopathic doctor and palazzo owner who cured him, Alberto Rinaldi, was beaten to death by Fascist agents in 1935. Over at La Foce, Iris Origo and her aristocratic husband Antonio were reaping the grants of Mussolini’s government in transforming the deracinated landscape into workable farming land, bountiful to their employees to the extent of building a school and later a hospital among other facilities, but patricians for all that.

Slowly the apolitical Iris, having turned a blind eye to news of murders and repressions countrywide despite mixing in left as well as right-wing circles, came to realize the horrors of the regime. During the war she and her husband earned the devotion of countless partisans and soldiers of many nationalities, feeding and sheltering them at great personal risk as the front came to La Foce – a time lucidly recounted in Iris’s most famous book, War in Val d’Orcia. You can see why the Origos fell in love with the harsh valley and its crete senesi or low clay hills "as bare and colourless as elephants' backs, as the mountains of the moon" around the time of their marriage in 1924, and why it was such a challenge to get long-term family friend and architect Cecil Pinsent to design a green and formal garden over the slopes beyond the Villa La Foce.

The garden of Villa La FoceThe tour I was given by Iris’s gracious older daughter Benedetta, a climax to my short visit on the morning of my departure after a four-hour storm the previous day had stopped play, gave me goosebumps at one very specific point. Past the osteria built in 1498 for pilgrims and merchants travelling the historic Via Francigena, we walked along a travertine path through a formal placement of lemon trees and the Fountain Garden to a terrace. Only at this point do the formal lower garden with its scallop of boxed hedges and the stark landscape beyond open up; the picture gives some idea of the frisson this creates. In the distance a zig-zagging path lined by cypresses, the quintessential Tuscan scene featured on countless postcards, was in fact an invention of Antonio’s, a road to a newly working farm.

Castelluccio BifolchiAbove the lower amphitheatre, another travertine path leads past the so-called rose garden – though roses, like other English transplants, don’t like the soil here – into less formal terrain and the woods: civilization and the wilds in careful Renaissance-style equilibrium. Certainly nature seemed in command on the previous evening’s expedition to the nearby Castelluccio Bifolchi: after the storm, the mists (pictured: the castle church), and no view at all of the dominant extinct volcano Monte Amiata. Plans for the Borromeo Quartet to give the second instalment of their Bartók cycle in the castle courtyard had been abandoned; instead we made our way along an avenue of autumnal horse chestnuts to a handsome barn as the setting sun loomed large through the haze.

Borromeo String Quartet in Castelluccio BifolchiThe Borromeos’ tough but energising journey through Bartók's Second, Fourth and Sixth Quartets was accompanied by iBooks with each player reading from the full score (pictured right: their first concert in the castle courtyard) – they use original manuscripts when they can – and a fascinating audience mix of young musicians with patrons local and American. Antonio Lysy, Benedetta’s son and founder of Incontri in Terra di Siena, is not only an international soloist but also Professor of Cello at Los Angeles’ University of California. So he brings with him not only students from UCLA but also such worthies as the venerable president of LA’s Philanthropic Society and their circle.

Local money also funds individual events. Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s predictably inspiring talk on Bach in Montepulciano’s Palazzo Ricci, base of the Cologne-born European Academy of Music and Arts where many of the ITS's intensive rehearsals and masterclasses take place, was made possible by his host in a remote hotel complex; it benefitted a Utopian crowd of young musicians, eager for their paperback copies of Gardiner’s instant classic Music in the Castle of Heaven to be signed (pictured below: its author with Antonio Lysy).

Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Antonio Lysy in MontepulcianoTaking away with me a new personal heaven in one of JEG’s recorded examples, the heartrending dialogue between soprano and oboe in Cantata BWV 105, I rushed up the hill as the storm began to buy recorder batteries for my imminent interview with the Ashkar brothers and found myself not unwillingly held in the Duomo with its fabulous Gothic altarpiece by Taddeo di Bartolo.

In this tight schedule, local treasures had to be glimpsed between events. I persuaded Harry Eyres - ardent Horatian, all-round enthusiastic, writer of the Financial Times' The Slow Lane column - to join me in breaking free of  the milling around before the Polyphony Foundation’s concert in the Teatro degli Avvaloranti of Città della Pieve. We quickly scented our way to the works of local boy Perugino in the Duomo – a Baptism of Christ luminous in the fading light on a side chapel and a vivid Madonna and Saints at the High Altar (pictured below), its bright red flags of the town bearing witness to the continuity of the place’s history. Sadly we were in town too late in the evening to catch the acknowledged gem of the Perugino legacy, an Adoration of the Magi in the tiny Oratorio di Santa Maria dei Bianchi; it had been on the agenda of the young musicians’ education programme here following a lecture by Maxim Vengerov’s art-historian wife Olga Gringolts.

Duomo altar in Citta della PieveCittà della Pieve is a total gem with a uniquely genial atmosphere and sense of civic pride, earmarked for a more leisurely visit. But nothing can surpass that first concert I caught there, not so much for the admirable credentials of the Polyphony Foundation but for the sheer subtle beauty of the playing. Hard to forget Saleem Ashkar gently “conducting” the older students from the piano in a perfect performance of Dvořák’s Piano Quintet, or conversations with the cellist, Yedidya Shaliv, currently on National Service back in Israel, who was handed a drawing of him made during the concert by Larisa Pilinsky, the artist wife of my lively Los Angelene colleague on the trip Laurence Vittes. 

One essential value of festivals like these is the time to bond, the opportunity over days to see the same people at the same concerts – and in this case that meant patrons and students, not just from Nazareth and Los Angeles but also the International Menuhin Music Academy (Alberto Lysy, Benedetta’s late husband, and Antonio's father, was a protégé of Yehudi Menuhin, whose visit to La Foce led to the introduction). My fleeting visit, cut short by a last-minute invitation to talk before a Prom, gave me no chance for that continuity, but it ended with a serendipitous meeting on the train back to Florence with the first violinist and cellist of the Borromeo Quartet, Nicholas Kitchen and his wife Yeesun Kim, travelling in for a day’s sightseeing with son Christopher.

So I urged on them Tippett’s last quartet and the septet arrangement of Strauss’s Metamorphosen, while in return I got a masterclass on the extraordinarily detailed dynamic markings in Beethoven’s quartet manuscripts, fruits of Kitchen's research previously laid out in a lecture to the students before my arrival. Something to pursue, a link with the future like my meeting with the Ashkar brothers: musical riches at this level never end once festival pleasures are over.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters