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Behind the scenes at 'Music in Bologna'

posted on 20/06/19

In 2012, I was on holiday in Bologna with two close friends and colleagues. One of the lovely things about working at MRT is that you are surrounded by people who are just as happy seeking out medieval church complexes or one of the world’s earliest anatomical theatres while on holiday as they are lying on a beach.

During our visit to the Archiginnasio (in which the theatre is found), we saw a sign saying ‘Rossini Stabat Mater hall, open by appointment only’ in Italian, which we all took as a challenge to find the relevant person to open it up for us. We found that it was the room in which the Italian première of Rossini’s Stabat Mater took place in 1842. The cornerstone of all Martin Randall Festivals is the union of music and place, and premières are a particular draw as, being well documented, they provide an indelible link between the two. The recreation of a première can be a short-cut to a different era, where the eyes as well as the ears can transport you.

This discovery sparked a chain of questions which are always explored when putting together one of our festivals – most importantly, what sort of musical connections can we find in Bologna? As it turned out, the city has an incredibly rich musical history, predominantly in the teaching of composition, which meant that key figures such as Padre Martini (who taught Mozart and J.C. Bach) and institutions such as the Accademia Filarmonica (alumni include Verdi and Puccini) and the Liceo Musicale (at which Rossini taught) provided an ample springboard for programming and artistic direction.

One of the biggest obstacles with putting together a new festival is not finding spectacular venues in our chosen location, but persuading the owners to let us hold a concert there. Once we have convinced them, and particularly once we have held our exceptional concerts and brought a respectful and interested audience, the path is often much smoother for future requests. The first steps are always the hardest, though. We often struggle to explain exactly what we do for the simple reason that no one else does it – there isn’t a model to use as an example – and, in the case of our European festivals, we are trying to negotiate all of this in a foreign language.

These are not public concerts, we don’t sell tickets, they are part of a larger festival with top international musicians for a private audience of stranieri (foreigners), who come for the entire six or seven days and have accommodation, transport, meals etc. organised for them. It would be much easier if we were organising conferences. What often clinches at least the beginnings of consent is our emphatic assertion of matching appropriate music to the venue (particularly important in churches, for example). The fact that we have held concerts in world-famous venues such as the Basilica di San Marco in Venice with world-famous artists also definitely helps.

I was reminded of some of the difficulties we faced for the first 2014 festival when I returned in 2018 for its second edition. The Basilica di San Petronio is wonderfully contradictory in a way that exemplifies the Bolognese personality – it isn’t the cathedral (which is a relatively dull building nearby), but sits in the middle of the main piazza, and is very much the religious heart of the city. It felt important to have a concert there, but churches can be very resistant; they are public buildings (for our private concert), are not motivated by charging a fee like many private institutions, and can be prone to monk-like levels of taciturnity (I can count on one hand the number of priests who both have an email address and check it more than once a year).

Fortunately, we found two connections that gained us access. The organist for the ensemble Odhecaton, with whom we have worked often in Italy, is also the organist for San Petronio; also, we discovered that Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in San Petronio in 1530, and that Odhecaton could recreate the Incoronation Mass by Gombert for us. Our concert was permitted and the date agreed. Or so we believed until we returned on one of several preparatory visits to Bologna, this one mere months before the festival was due to take place. To our horror, a grumpy priest slowly turned pages of the huge church diary to the date of our concert… where nothing was written, despite multiple emails and phone calls confirming it. Watching over him, we insisted that he swap his pencil for a biro, putting in ink our critical and significant appointment.


Lizzie Watson, Product Development Manager


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