Music, Art and a passegiata in Centro Storico
The Festa del Centro Storico is many things, mostly but not exclusively musical, wrapped up into a 10-day package that can alternately dazzle and exhaust performers and audiences alike. It’s provocative a lot of the time and (alas) too enamored of high-decibel volume much of the time. But it is very seldom, if ever, boring.
Monday night’s installment was a stunning example, brought to us by a foursome of contemporary musicians and visual artists in the Piazza Angelio and a dynamic open-air nightclub combo in Piazza Annunziata. In the peripatetic tradition of what used to be called the Festa delle Piazzette – am I alone in preferring the old name? – the summer evening crowds wandered back and forth between these two acts: art as passeggiata.
Painting, theater, music and architecture collided and collaborated in the Piazza Angelio. The set, if that’s the right term, was an enormous cube, fashioned from wood and translucent plastic sheeting, that dominated Barga’s largest square. Until 10 pm, it posed a silent metaphorical question mark for passersby and a full terrace of Osteria diners. Then, with clockwork precision, the static was suddenly converted to frenzied sound and movement.
Trumpet king/composer Andrea Guzzoletti and keyboard magician Simone Venturi, two of Italy’s outstanding jazz talents, began playing selections from Guzzoletti’s riveting “invisible Cities,” inspired by Italo Calvino’s famous prose poem – article here. Artists Fabrizio Da Prato and Keane, dressed in construction overalls and safety helmets and assisted by a muscle team, lifted the cube and lowered it over the musicans. In effect, they and their instruments were incarcerated in the huge hollow box, the exterior of which Keane and Da Prato set to painting.
I knew, from advance billing, that the event was scheduled to run precisely one hour, one minute and one second. So I headed up the Via di Mezzo to check out the scene under the frescoed gaze of the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary at la Chiesa dell’Annunziata.
As I passed the Casa Cordati – currently the site of a mostra of paintings by Da Prato and Keane – article here – the first strains of a torch song reached me, floating above the palazzi of Barga’s Renaissance silk barons. Silk is the best word I can think of to describe the voice of Francesca de Martin, the Garfagnana’s reincarnation of Ella Fitzgerald. – article here
The clarity and caressing perfection of her notes turns every lyric of her repertoire, drawn principally from George Gerschwin’s and Cole Porter’s prewar New York, into a prayer. Maybe it was the effect of the balmy July night, but it seemed to me that Mary and her angel were smiling down from their perch above the Annunziata portal, enjoying themselves as much as the enthusiastic crowd in the piazza below.
La bella Francesca would be the first to add, as I will, that her prayers benefit immeasurably from the backdrop provided by Michelangelo Tozzi on guitar and pianist Ugo Bongianni. Their ability to add exacting shade and color to a song, to set its gems in context, is what distinguishes true professionals.
At 10:30 or so, I wandered back down the Middle Road, past the Casa Cordati again, past the ragazzi kicking a soccer ball around the campo before the Teatro, rounding the corner into the Piazza Angelio. The cube was aflame now, an eery interior light bursting through its orange skin. It pulsed with the music of Guzzoletti and Venturi – harmonious yet cacaphonic, rhythmic yet jarring, echoing the sonic contradictions of cities real and cities imagined.
Keane and Da Prato were furiously painting, covering the cube’s four visible faces with immense mandala-like designs in blue, black and gold, climbing wobbly ladders to reach the upper storeys, sprinting to a nearby table to mix colors, refill their buckets and change brushes. Keane kept his eye on a stopwatch. The minutes ticked away in a manic rush, time flinging itself forward towards the appointed deadline of 61 minutes and a single second.
This is conceptual art at its metamorphic best, and no one — not even the artists themselves – has the last definitive word on what it means. All I can do here is report on the themes that gyrated through one observer’s mind as the performance raced to its finale. I thought about the relationship that inextricably ties cultural workers (represented by Guzzoletti and Venturi) to critics and reviewers, who paint their own intepretations on what is heard or seen. I thought about the resonance between art and its setting: the cube was suggestively mirrored in the noble rectilinear windows of the Angelio palazzos and in the palazzos’ geometric forms.
I thought, too, as the music soared into the evening skies, that you can’t imprison art or try to limit it, and still call it art. It may be enclosed in a box, even hermetically sealed away, but one way or another it will escape. Guzzoletti and Venturi did just that as the clock ran out. They exploded into the piazza, after Da Prato and Keane traded their brushes for knives and slashed liberating gaps in their own work, creation married to destruction.
Article by Frank Viviano – Images by Giornale di Barga, Frank Viviano, Irene Varriale and Brian Brown