• Day 316: A New Year with an Old Pro

    Date: 2011.01.01 | Category: Uncategorized | Tags:

    It’s so helpful to have Irish blood!  Means you can drink half a bottle of rose champagne, stay out until 2 a.m. – and wake up in the morning feeling fine.

    No time for a hangover this morning, the first of 2011, because we were scheduled to go to the free 11 a.m. annual New Year’s concert of the Nice Philharmonic (l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice) at the Acropolis.

    When your last address was midtown Manhattan, Nice often seems like a ToyTown. Can you really compare the Nice Philharmonic to anything in New York?

    Little did I know my New Year would begin in the presence of one of those celestial personalities who lift you above the ordinary and tedious and renew your faith.

    From the minute the concert started, it seemed fantastic to me.  ”How can you tell if this is not as good as something in New York, London or Paris?” I whispered to my friend.  None of us knew.

    I was enchanted by the powerhouse conductor, 73-year-old Roberto Benzi. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  He was wearing a black waistcoat, and standing on a rise in the center of the orchestra. Talk about a commanding figure.

    He was so filled with passion and fire it was like watching a human in musical instrument form.  He was fierce, too.  At one point the audience thought the piece was over and started to clap.  Bad idea.  He turned and threw us all a death glare.

    Not a person to mess with. I loved him!

    At one point, during a slow section (sorry, I don’t know how to write correctly about classical music), he turned to the cellist nearest him and she played solo for a few minutes and it was so beautiful I felt tears come to my eyes.

    Wow, I thought, who knew provincial little Nice, France had such a talent?

    It clearly wasn’t just me who adored Benzi (even though I’m only one who yelled ‘Bravo!”)

    The maestro got four encores (they’re probably not even called that in classical music, sorry again) strutting back and forth onstage and coming out a final time as colored confetti rained down on the audience and Benzi raised a glass of champagne to the audience.

    Back home, I looked up Roberto Benzi.   No wonder I thought he was so great.

    He was born in Marseilles to Italian parents and began studying music at 3 and conducting lessons at 10 with a famous conductor in Paris.  At 11, no less, he conducted concerts in Paris.  He also starred in two French films as a child and became famous all over Europe.

    During his 50-year career, he conducted at pretty much every major orchestra and opera house in the galaxy:  the London Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Ensemble Orchestrale de Paris, to name just a few.

    People were flipping for Benzi 60 years before I did today.  When Benzi was conducting at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris as an 11-year-old in 1949, the German maestro Joseph Krips got to know him.  Both the photographs above are of Benzi as a child with Krips.

    Krips even wrote a letter in 1949 attesting to Benzi’s talent, translated from the German here:

    Roberto Benzi is not a child prodigy. He appears to me as a real piece of music. He does not conduct, he does not make music: he is the music itself. Music springs out from his delicate body and finds its right expression through his movements. What this boy is doing is fascinating and enchanting. All in him is natural. The feeling of this child about the musical line (only reached in mature years by most musicians) is surprisingly already an evidence. He hears each wrong note and corrects the players, like a very experienced conductor. Will God protect the small Roberto and keep him healthy. By following in this way, the level he can reach is immense.

    I couldn’t have said it better myself!

    Bonne Année, Maestro!