Getting ready for the 2016 ABS Festival & Academy: “An Italian Journey”

2016-Festival-and-AcademyDo you have your 2016 ABS Festival & Academy tickets yet? This summer’s Festival, which will be held at both St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from August 5-14, promises thrilling musical performances, an assortment of free public events, and the chance to engage with the Italian Baroque. Titled An Italian Journey,” many of the concerts and lectures of the ABS Festival will explore the music and culture of Italy along with works by J.S. Bach, who was profoundly influenced by musical innovations that originated on the Italian peninsula. This 10-day immersion in the Italian style–a modern day Grand Tour right here in San Francisco–will include glorious sacred music by Handel and Vivaldi; elegant and witty chamber works by Frescobaldi, Caldara, and others; virtuosic concerti by Vivaldi & Corelli; the North American premiere of Handel’s sumptuous and festive serenata Parnasso in festa; and two performances of Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor. With a few months to get into the spirit, we compiled a short list of resources for those who are inclined to read, listen, and watch a little before embarking on “An Italian Journey” with ABS in August.


Beginning in the sixteenth century and lasting on into modern times, The Grand Tour was a rite of passage. To complete their education and attain a certain continental refinement, British noblemen and wealthy landed gentry ventured to Italy and the roots of civilization to observe humanity’s greatest artistic achievements in art, sculpture, architecture, and music. The idea of “taking The Tour” caught on and cultural pilgrims from all over Europe, and eventually America, made the trip over the centuries with Italy being either an important stop or the ultimate destination. Below are a few great sources about The Grand Tour:

Goethe: Italian Journey, 1786-1788 (Penguin Classics)

Goethe_Italian_JourneyThough already famous at the age of 26 for his The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe balanced his artistic sensibilities and vocation as a lawyer well for many years. At the age of 36, he sent his employers at the firm a letter requesting leave so he could take The Grand Tour. Before permission was granted, Goethe was already on a stagecoach bound for Italy and chronicled his adventures in diary form. “I am not here to enjoy myself,” he wrote upon reaching Rome, “I want to develop myself fully before I am forty.” Poet, novelist, statesman, and philosopher, Goethe also proved to be a great travel writer and his Italian diary is full of insightful observations, adventure, and encounters with local eccentrics. Though late for the Baroque period, Goethe’s “Italian Journey” is a fascinating read. Many versions are available, but I recommend poet W.H. Auden’s translation.

E.M. Forster: A Room With A View (1908, filmed version 1986)

Screenshot 2016-05-24 13.52.42This classic twentieth century Grand Tour novel follows a young Englishwoman as she finds love and meaning in the exotic locale of Florence, Italy. The transformation she undergoes leads to a complicated transition back into English society. The Merchant-Ivory cinematic adaption of Forster’s novel introduced filmgoers to actress Helena Bonham Carter and also enchanted them with Puccini’s aria “O mio bambino caro,” unforgettably sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. Though not from or about the Baroque period, Forster’s tale is essential reading and/or viewing for learning about the age-old custom of The Grand Tour.


Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi spent many years working in Venice for the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage and convent for young girls, which also trained many of its wards to be musicians. With Antonio Vivaldi as their music master, the all-female orchestra and chorus became known for their virtuosity and thrilling performances. The fact that this accomplished ensemble of young virgins were rarely permitted to leave the Pietà and gave their heavenly performances from behind a metal grate separating them from the Venetian public, contributed to their legend and mystique. Vivaldi’s “Angels of the Pietà” have inspired storytellers for centuries. While not all of these narratives are likely to be worth exploring, some recent ones utilize current research to imagine the lives of the orphaned girls in effective ways while still others shed light on the social, political, and economic forces at work in eighteenth-century Venice. Below are a few intriguing attempts to understand this fascinating institution for which Vivaldi composed a great deal of incredible music. On August 5, ABS will open the 2016 ABS Festival with sacred works by Handel and Vivaldi, including the latter’s famous Gloria, composed for the female virtuosi of the Pietà. Then, on August 13, the virtuosi soloists of ABS will perform instrumental concerti by Vivaldi, many of which were also written for these fantastic Venetian orphans. Before attending the concerts, you may want to explore the legend further:

The Four Season by Laurel Corona (Hyperion Books, 2008)Four Seasons

A novel about two sisters who grow up as wards of the Pietà. High spirited Chiaretta sings with the Coro until marrying into a powerful Venetian family. Her sister Maddalena rises through the ranks at the Pietà as a virtuoso violinist and muse to Maestro Vivaldi.


Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick (Harper Perennial, 2008)Vivaldi's Vigins

Taking as its inspiration the life of Anna Maria dal Violin, a historical alumna of the Ospedale della Pietà, Quick’s novel is a fictional account of growing up within the Ospedale system. Outwardly committed to the strict regimen of daily prayers and musical instruction, Anna is driven to learn more about where she came from and launches into a journey of self-discovery that leads her, and readers, into the heart of eighteenth-century Venetian music culture.

Vivaldi’s Gloria

This filmed performance (below, from the BBC Four documentary Vivaldi’s Women) of the famous Gloria in D Major channels the legendary ensemble of the Ospedale della Pietà during Vivaldi’s time. It shows the all-female orchestra and chorus in an eighteenth century church performing behind screens, using candles to read their music, and wearing simple uniforms like those worn by the young ladies in the composer’s day. The only thing missing in this fanciful recreation is a roomful of ecstatic Venetians and out-of-towners, enthralled by the music and drawn to the mysterious, otherworldly performers who are physically separated from them, barely visible, and unobtainable.

If you have some favorite books, films, or videos related to The Grand Tour or the Italian Baroque, please share them with us on the ABS Facebook page. To learn more about the 2016 ABS Festival & Academy (August 5-14, 2016), see the full schedule, request a brochure, or purchase tickets, please visit our website.


Also, mark your calendars now for two outstanding free educational events during the Festival: On Friday, July 29 at 6:30 pm, ABS violinist Robert Mealy will present a pre-Festival, multimedia lecture about the Festival theme–”An Italian Journey”–at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura. On Saturday, August 6 at 2:30 pm, an ABS Festival Public Colloquium titled “The Grand Tour of Italy” will explore the Grand Tour, Italian Baroque instrumental style, and the craze for Italian opera. Join William Berger–author, lecturer, and writer/producer for the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts–and the ABS Academy Faculty for a lively and informative discussion.