BEIT MERY: It seems appropriate that the 22nd edition of Al Bustan Festival has chosen nature as its theme. With many bemused Beirutis gazing into empty water tanks and wondering what happened to the winter rainy season, nature is indeed on people’s minds nowadays.
Yet “In Nature’s Kingdom,” the countryside-inspired program that resonated through the Emile Bustani Auditorium Tuesday evening, steered well clear of the contemporary. Composers like Jon Rose – his “Music from 4 Fences,” say – were overlooked in favor of works by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), Nino Rota (1911-1979) and Roberto Molinelli (b.1963).
In the introductory remarks accompanying the 2014 program, festival founder Myrna Bustani notes that the sounds of nature are associated with relaxation. Al Bustan’s program is music for diversion, then, rather than engagement. Indeed, with the sound of car bombs accompanying Beirut’s morning rush hour nowadays, who’s to say a bit of diversion is such a bad thing.
Nature, climate change and terrorism aside, Tuesday evening’s show belonged to Mario Pietrodarchi, a virtuoso of the bandoneon – which laymen might confuse with an accordion. Over the course of the evening he moved back and forth between two squeeze-boxes, a larger one and a smaller one, whose different tonalities may be akin to that of a tenor and soprano sax.
Under the baton of Al Bustan’s Italian-born music director Gianluca Marciano, the 33-year-old soloist led the Tbilisi State Opera Orchestra through a suite of Nino Rota’s soundtrack tunes – which have accompanied such award-winning films as “Amarcord” (1973), “La Strada” (1954), “Otto e mezzo” (1963) and, of course, “Il Padrino” (1972).
There are those who might point out that a medley of familiar tunes from the glory days of cinema is a self-defeating thing – simply serving to remind you of great movies that you are not, at present, enjoying. Pietrodarchi’s tender interpretations of these numbers, however, compelled some members of his Beit Mery audience – which included Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam and former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora – to swoon with nostalgic pleasure.
Pietrodarchi applies himself to his labor with the self-confident verve of a performer who knows he’s doing the most important thing in the room. At the end of each of his tunes, programmed and otherwise, the soloist leapt to his feet and, biting his bottom lip, gestured broadly – whether raising his instrument over his head, pumping the air (house DJ-fashion), or slapping palms with his conductor.
No Karajan himself, Marciano’s approach to the baton is such that, at times, he appears to be dancing with his orchestra as much as conducting them. On this night the maestro and his soloist made a ripe pairing. Not only did they defy program expectations by placing both the soloist’s numbers before the interval, they conspired to further delay the audience’s interlude in the hotel’s Scotch Bar with several encore pieces as well.
Pietrodarchi brought the same reckless energy to his interpretation of Molinelli’s “Heart of Spring, Stormy Winter,” a piece the composer apparently wrote with this bandoneon-player in mind.
Pietrodarchi and his bandoneon commanded the middle bits of the evening, but the concert opened and closed with orchestral works by Dvorak, solidly rendered by Marciano and the TSOO, whose youthful numbers nearly overflowed the banks of the Emile Bustani Auditorium’s wee stage.
The Lebanese national anthem was immediately followed by Dvorak’s “In Nature’s Realm” op.91. Apparently composed around 1981, a year or so before the Czech composer migrated to the U.S., the piece was performed at his final Prague concert.
Replete with the swells of romantic strings, punctuated by bird-like chirpings and meepings from the winds, Dvorak’s overture has not inappropriately been compared to the work of Brahms. A more obvious lineage is with that of Edvard Grieg, specifically his “Suite No. 1, Op. 46 (1888), whose opening theme, “Morgenstemning” (pop culture’s aural signifier of “halcyon nature”) is alluded to incessantly.
Marciano and the TSOO closed the evening with Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 in E minor,” Op. 95, From the New World. As the piece’s informal title points out, the Czech composer’s best-known work was composed after he migrated to the U.S., and authorities on his oeuvre and American music of this period are fond of gesturing to his use of American folk tunes in its composition.
One thing that the Georgians’ flawless rendition of Dvorak’s Ninth makes clear, however, particularly the heroic themes to which the composer repeatedly returns, is his immense debt to Beethoven. The symphony is redolent with the smell of the German composer’s later works.
No matter. Beethoven belongs here.
“In Nature’s Kingdom” will be restaged at Al Bustan Festival Thursday evening. For more information see http://www.albustanfestival.com