Sunday, December 13, 2009

Venetian Efficiency | Venetian Sublime

Last Sunday I went to the Church of San Salvador for a performance of Tchaikovsky's Liturgy for San Giovanni Grisostomo. I was struck by two things; first, the deep Russian-ness, the unique sound of Russain liturgical music, closer to the Byzantine than to the Roman. Secondly, that music expresses the inexpressible. This is clearest in purely instrumental music, but this music, with a liturgical text sung a capella by a small choir with male soloists, enables us to experience what the words alone attempt, and necessarily fail, to express. That is to say, we experience of the sublime. We hear the music and feel its presence; it fills our senses in a way our minds can understand.

In the church I noticed a poster for a series of organ concerts, vespri d'organi, at the Basilica di San Marco and made a mental note to go on Tuesday at 17:00. On Monday afternoon I wondered if there might be a concert on Monday. San Salvador was closed when I went by, and since I had to go through Piazza San Marco I stopped at the tourist office. I hadn't seen the posters anywhere else.

The woman behind the counter was nice enough. I told her I couldn't find any information on the organ concerts at San Marco.

Surely I was mistaken, she said. There is no organ at San Marco. She was quite emphatic, and suggested that perhaps I meant Salute.

I told her I knew about the vespri d'organo at Salute, but that this was different. She shuffled through her catalog and shook her head. There aren't even any at Salute in December, she said, as though a bit puzzled. At any rate she assured me that there couldn't be an organ concert in San Marco because there is no organ. I couldn't remember having seen one there and deferred to her superior knowledge.

This afternoon I went to the flea market at Campo Santa Maria Novella. (A guy was selling 70's leather bags. I was tempted to buy a brown leather borsetta with two buckles, very snappy, for 35E but got sidetracked and didn't. Have to see if he's there next Sunday!) On my way home I passed through Piazza San Marco. There was absolutely no line for the Basilica, and I always take advantage of such opportunities. The sun was out and the light was good. The interior was wonderfully luminous. (I won't go into it here. I will only say that repeated viewings always pay off; I'm never sorry I stopped in.) I noticed, in the left chancel arch, organ pipes. The lady at the tourist office had been so emphatic; but there it was. There were more pipes on the other side. It is a considerable organ that doesn't exist.

I went to the Chapel of St. Isidore where you can sit down because I wanted to make some notes. On a bannister were handouts for the vespri d'organi. It was the same program as I had seen on the poster in San Salvador. These were the concerts that didn't exist on the non-existent organ. I decided to come back for the concert, and thought about going to the tourist office tomorrow and pointing out to the lady that San Marco indeed has a quite an organ, and the vespri d'organo are there in December, not at Salute, which is why there were none in Salute. She works for the city; she is the source of last resort for people looking for things in the city. She should, one would think, have a clue. If she's there, I will stop in.

By the by, the vespri d'organo was interesting, less because of the organ than because every opportunity to see the interior of the basilica lit up is an opportunity worth taking. A few brief comments here; I will go on and on on my own time.

The gold background of the mosaics make the images seem more artificial, but they also reflect light. They illumate the figures in the foreground, giving them a more dramatic reality, not a naturalistic one. The basilica, because it is Byzantine, is the monument in Venice which most lacks windows; there are many, but not enough to entirely illuminate all the mosaics which are maddeningly difficult to see even under the best of circumstances. Artificial illumination is required. Well lit, the "Christ blessing" in the cove above the apse, though late (but to an old design), is a crown of creation, a great big "hell, yeah!" for human artistry.

The organist played sections of Bach's Art of Fugue. I am quite certain he is the same organist I heard playing Art of Fugue at Salute a few weeks back, perhaps rehearsing, afternoons around 4. A couple times at Salute he got lost and trailed off into improvisatory vamping. Tonight he played the sections straight. I know that the organ is a fiercely difficult instrument to play, requiring both hands and feet; but I couldn't follow the fugal structure. This may in part have to do with the fact that the echo-ey five dome structure of the basilica is inhospitable to this music; Bach's clean interweaving lines are smudged over by the long reverb of the basilica's domes and arches. I checked when I got home; I could follow the lines on my recording, so it wasn't just me...

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