Mu­si­cal Des­ti­na­tions

This an­cient and re­fresh­ingly un­crowded Ital­ian city is a daz­zling ac­com­pa­ni­ment to a colour­ful fes­ti­val, as Oliver Condy dis­cov­ers

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion: Ravenna Fes­ti­val raven­nafes­ti­ Ravenna city tur­

Oliver Condy vis­its Ravenna, Italy

One of the things that draws peo­ple to Ravenna is the chance to fol­low in the foot­steps of two some­what dif­fer­ent poets. Dante Alighieri, orig­i­nally from Florence, com­pleted ‘Par­adiso’, the fi­nal part of The Di­vine Com­edy, in Ravenna while in ex­ile. He died here in 1321 and was even­tu­ally en­tombed in an 18th-cen­tury mau­soleum in the city cen­tre (Florence is still cross and wants his body back). The other poet, the colour­ful Lord By­ron, was lured here for racier rea­sons, mainly in pur­suit of the 19-year-old Teresa Gamba who was at the time en­gaged to Count Guic­ci­oli. By­ron, clearly shame­less, moved into the cou­ple’s home, Palazzo Guic­ci­oli, and de­clared him­self Teresa’s of­fi­cial lover (although they had what might be called an ‘open’ re­la­tion­ship). He was also some­thing of a po­lit­i­cal trou­ble maker, fan­cy­ing him­self as a free­dom fighter and help­ing the no­to­ri­ous ‘Car­bonari’ rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in their failed at­tempts to lib­er­ate parts of Italy from cor­rupt aris­to­crats.

But it doesn’t mat­ter if your mo­tives for vis­it­ing are right­eous or a lit­tle reck­less: Ravenna is an in­spi­ra­tional place, its com­plex, cen­turies-long re­la­tion­ships with divers re­li­gions, cul­tures and em­pires, both east­ern and western, re­sult­ing in some of the Europe’s most stag­ger­ing art­works. At the beat­ing heart of an­cient Ravenna lies its mag­nif­i­cent col­lec­tion of mo­saics, tes­ta­ments to the dy­ing days of the Ro­man Em­pire – of which Ravenna was for a time the cap­i­tal – and the emer­gence of Chris­tian­ity. You could do much worse than to base your tours of Ravenna sim­ply on gawk­ing at these ‘ar­tis­ti­cally per­fect’ mo­saics, as UNESCO de­scribes them. The best is in the Mau­soleum of Galla Placida, a mod­est cru­ci­form chapel that con­ceals

a spec­tac­u­lar vaulted ceil­ing blan­keted in stars, the four apos­tles and other re­li­gious im­agery com­bin­ing to rather splen­did ef­fect. Next door is the mag­nif­i­cent Basil­ica of San Vitale (left), with its kalei­do­scopic Byzan­tine mo­saics, the best pre­served of any out­side Is­tan­bul. Then there’s the Arian Bap­tistry, the Bap­tistry of Neon, the Basil­ica of Sant’apol­linare in Classe… each with its own breath­tak­ing in­te­rior. The list goes on and on. And be­cause Ravenna is tucked up nicely over on the east coast of Italy and isn’t ser­viced by its own air­port, it’s slightly out of the way, and queues for its most pop­u­lar at­trac­tions are un­heard of – ev­ery­one’s too busy bolt­ing be­tween Venice, Florence and Rome. Ravenna re­ally is an es­cape, of the best pos­si­ble kind. And the food and wine on of­fer (par­tic­u­larly the fish), are quite ex­cep­tional, too.

Many of the city’s churches, the­atres and palaz­zos play host to the 50 or so con­certs that make up the Ravenna Fes­ti­val, held dur­ing June and most of July (fes­ti­val artis­tic di­rec­tor An­gelo Ni­cas­tro is con­stantly on the hunt for new venues, he says). One of this year’s themes, ‘We have a dream’, is both a homage to civil rights icon Martin Luther King, mur­dered 50 years ago, and a call to unite global cul­tures – as the city has done since the fifth cen­tury. ‘We be­lieve that we have to con­tinue our im­por­tant role of be­ing a link be­tween dif­fer­ent cul­tures in the world,’ says Ni­cas­tro. ‘We try to be now what we have been in the past: to be open to new and dif­fer­ent cul­tures, par­tic­u­larly from the East.’ And so within the 2018 pro­gramme you’ll dis­cover a con­cert in the clois­ter of the Classense Li­brary that brings to­gether Ar­me­nian, Jewish, Mus­lim and Syr­i­anChris­tian mu­sic; a per­for­mance in the Alighieri The­atre of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate cel­e­brat­ing Amer­ica’s melt­ing pot of eth­nic­i­ties and lan­guages; and, un­der the com­ple­men­tary theme of ‘The new-found song of the lyre’, a wide-rang­ing recital

At the beat­ing heart of an­cient Ravenna lies its mag­nif­i­cent col­lec­tion of mo­saics

of an­cient and mod­ern litur­gi­cal choral mu­sic pre­sented by The Six­teen in the Basil­ica of Sant’apol­linare that will lend a voice to mu­sic writ­ten un­der op­pres­sion.

The Ravenna Fes­ti­val has also grown its own tra­di­tion of ven­tur­ing out­side the city walls, its ‘Roads of Friend­ship’ tak­ing Ital­ian mu­si­cians un­der the ba­ton of con­duc­tor Ric­cardo Muti to far-f lung cities, start­ing with Sara­jevo 20 years ago and in­clud­ing, since, Beirut, Yere­van, Nairobi, New York and, last year, the Ira­nian cap­i­tal Tehran. ‘Our an­nual pil­grim­age,’ says Muti, ‘re­minds us of the uni­ver­sal­ity of the mu­si­cal lan­guage and the com­mon bonds be­tween us all.’ This year the Ital­ian mae­stro and his Luigi Cheru­bini Youth Orches­tra are jet­ting off to Kiev for a con­cert with the choir and orches­tra of the Na­tional Opera of Ukraine – Kiev, like Ravenna, is home to World Her­itage churches, com­plete with their own his­toric mo­saics, dat­ing back to the sixth cen­tury.

Next year’s Fes­ti­val, how­ever, be­longs to that old rogue Lord By­ron – Palazzo Guic­ci­oli is un­der­go­ing a com­plete restora­tion and will be open to the pub­lic later in 2018. The Ravenna Fes­ti­val will cel­e­brate, no doubt, with Ber­lioz’s Harold in Italy, Tchaikovsky’s Man­fred Sym­phony – or per­haps even Verdi’s I due Foscari, based on a play By­ron wrote while in Ravenna. It seems the poet made pro­duc­tive use of his time here after all.

Mo­saic for while: cel­lists per­form in the Basil­ica of San Vitale

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