Taking off
The Birthplace of Music

Viva Italia

Greetings from Rome, where the weather is gorgeous and the sites are spectacular. This is my very first trip to Italy, and it lives up to all the superlatives.

And, yes, that includes musical events. On Saturday, I made my way up to the new Auditorium della Musica, in north Rome. The complex, long the dream of composer Luciano Berio, consists of three halls designed by Renzo Piano, the largest being Santa Cecilia Hall - which is, in fact, the largest concert hall in Europe (2,700 capacity). The concert was by the Accademia Santa Cecelia, under music director Antonio Pappano, who is also the director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The first half of the program was Sala IX, a choral work in Latin by Italian composer Gofreddo Petrassi (d. 2003) Petrassi didn't push any tonal boundaries, but he did write music with a punch, and Pappano clearly relished in the huge sound, which sounded like a cross between Verdi's Requiem and a Morricone film score.

On the second half, Daniel Barenboim was going to attempt to perform Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto and the Liszt 1st Piano Concerto. What, was the Beethoven is just a warm up for this guy? Hardly: his performance was full of grace and intellect, revealing complexities I'd never heard before, despite having heard it numerous times. During the pauses, Barenboim - who is as celebrated these days for his conducting as his piano playing - seemed to be guiding the orchestra with his mind.

After a thunderous ovation, he came back out - without a break - and immediately tore into the Liszt. Barenboim, who turned 65 this year, showed no signs of flagging energy in the impossibly difficult score, his fingers flying across the keyboard with ease. Indeed, when he finally finished, Pappano was dripping, but Barenboim  hadn't even broken a sweat

As if that weren't enough, after three curtain calls he consented to an encore: the Chopin Nocturne in E flat major. And, he played it with deep feeling, losing none of his flair from the hour of virtuoso playing he'd just endured. Clearly, the Beethoven and Bach marathons he's engaged himself in the past few years have helped build up his stamina. In fact, I've seen him look much more exhausted after conducting: once, after a performance of Bruckner's 9th with the Chicago Symphony, he looked like he could have collapsed.

Tonight, there are two major events taking place in Rome. The blockbuster is a nationally televised performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony at the Basilica of San Paolo, with NYP music director Lorin Maazel conducting the Toscanini Orchestra in a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Italy joining the European Union. Instead, I'll be back at the Auditorium della Musica, for a concert featuring the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, including a selection from his opera cycle Licht and the world premiere of a new work for orchestra.

Tomorrow, I leave for Florence, with Venice and Bologna to follow. There will be more musical happenings in those places; details (and pictures) to come.