Thursday, January 29, 2009


11:00PM January 25

It started out as another dreary day, a bit rainy, but we decided to walk up to campus anyway, after all, that’s where we were going to catch the bus taking us to Umbria. In the end, our inability to sign up for the trip to Lucca worked in our favor because it was this same weekend. Instead of a daytrip to another Tuscan city, my roommates and I opted to take the overnight with the music department to Terni, a small town in the south of Umbria. The head of our music department, Antonio Vanni, and his brother are organizers for the world-famous Umbria jazz festival, which regularly brings in main stage acts such as Keith Jarrett and Wayne Shorter. NYU was treating us to a bus ride and four-star hotel, and Antonio and his brother got us in to view a pre-festival concert and eat a nice four-course meal for a discounted price.

We boarded the bus a bit after two in the afternoon on Saturday and were soon roaming through the Tuscan farm country. The bus ride was actually one of the best parts of the trip, giving me a chance to finally see the region outside the city. I imagine many centuries, maybe millennia, ago that this was a forested area, although it is still unclear to me whether the trees of the region are naturally coniferous or deciduous. There is an abundant supply of each, and most look native to the Mediterranean landscape that we are accustomed to seeing. Today, most of the land is cleared and held by farms though, largely small, and many still using old systems of irrigation to keep the soil wet, although I can hardly believe the plants would need any extra water if it continues to rain this much. Many of the farms belonged to bare grape vines that looked to be entrenched in the ground for decades. Every once in a while, a dense enclave of houses would sprout up in the distance on some far-off hillside. What a landscape?

Antonio did not travel with us on the bus, but as soon as we arrived in Terni, around five, he popped up to join us. He has a knack for showing up at seemingly random times, and seems to know everybody. Wherever we go, he is thrust into significant conversations with seemingly strangers that suddenly appear to be long lost acquaintances.

While the hotel standards are different here, our space was quite cozy. John and I roomed together for the night, and we were both blown away by the elevator, its shiny black walls providing a cool mirror effect, and its ceiling of flower-like lights providing a cool ambience. The elevators here are smaller, but I found it interesting that, like the elevator at here at school, there was no door-close button, only a door-open one. I guess that is an American concept, as we cannot wait for the door to close on its own, and the doors here do seem to take longer to close themselves.

The room had two single beds, which just seems more economical than the standard double queen formula of most American hotel rooms because most people don’t need a queen-size bed. Another interesting facet of the room was that the lights only turned on when we inserted the key into a special slot in the wall; I’m sure it is a way to save energy. The size of the rooms led some others to complain though, believing that this “four-star-hotel” was no better than a Holiday Inn back in the States. I know John and I had no problem, and it was nice to know we were assured a hot shower in the morning (our hot-water heater hasn’t quite been able to keep up with our consumption.)

Antonio then took us on a walk down the city’s main strip, a somewhat American looking shopping district. As he noted, Terni was one of the main steel manufacturing towns of Italy, and during WWII, we destroyed about 80% of the city, and most of the history was lost. What we see today was mostly built in the 1970’s along with a few giant buildings left over from the fascist period. There are many faux 18th century buildings with the terra cotta roofs that are everywhere here, but it is largely modern looking. Antonio went as far as to call it an ugly city, and he had a particular distaste for the performance venue, which is the best available in Terni during the wintertime. In programming the festival, they aim to put the venues all around Umbria, not just in the cities, but throughout the countryside, including at the Cascata delle Marmore (a huge waterfall created by the Romans, which remains the tallest man-made waterfall in the world, and one of the tallest of any kind in Europe.)

We arrived at the sound check for the concert around 6:30, and as I’ve heard is common in Italy, the band was late (apparently it goes far beyond the whole jazz musician stigma, and musicians are just plainly tardy here.) While we waited for the band to arrive, we got a brief demonstration on piano tuning by one of the world’s foremost piano tuners (routinely requested by the likes of Elton John, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Martha Argerich.) He blew all of us away, revealing the process to be much more than creating a mathematically determined correct pitch, but rather a process in finding the right resonance for the room and the pianist. On a single note, he showed us how he could create an extra two seconds of sustain. When the trio—led by our Aural Comprehension teacher—finally arrived some twenty minutes later, we watched as they warmed up, and many photojournalists came in to take pictures of the group.

We then went out to dinner at a place nearby, and we dined in a large cellar in the basement. The trio soon showed up, eating at a round table on a platform overlooking our long one. The meal began with a plate of hors devours. It featured little dibs and dabs of quiche, spinach omelet, sausage, cheese, spanakopita, bread with varying pâtés, and a fried piece of phyllo dough at the center, molded into a bowl and filled with beans and olive oil. I think this was my favorite part of the meal. The next course was pasta, a penne alfredo with bits of sausage. I would say this was in the same ballpark as the fusili I had the other day: very good, but a pretty average pasta dish here. The next course we were expecting to be meat, but we were disappointed to find it was a fair fettucine in marinara sauce. The meal was taking a while, and as the time approached 9:15, we wondered if we would make it in time for the 9:30 concert, only to realize that the band was still eating with us. In Italy, concerts are not pre-seated though, and Antonio wanted to make sure we got decent seats, so we practically scarffed down the dessert, a great light custard in a sweet liquor sauce, and then hurried off to the show.

The show was alright but not particularly my taste. It was a piano trio, and the musicians were all great, but it was a bit avante garde. Much of the time it seemed like they were showing off their musical chops and noodling for their own enjoyment without sharing that joy with the crowd. There was one tone poem-like tune where the bass player tapped his instrument and bowed it in different ways above and below the nut and the bridge, which I really enjoyed. Another piece sounded a lot like Vince Guaraldi, which was also great, but even the tune where the pianist played his Moog synthesizer I found to be a little too ethereal and polytonal for my liking. I was surprised to find the concert lasting nearly two hours, but overall it seemed to go by fast, and I had a good time, regardless of my general disinterest with the musical style.

Afterwards we went to a small cafe with a jam session going on in the upstairs portion. This music was more straight-ahead jazz, and I enjoyed it far more. Antonio had informed us we might have a chance to sit-in at the session, so I brought my guitar to Terni, but they did not have an amp, so I decided to leave after the first set, hoping to get up early the next day in order to check out the city more thoroughly.

When I returned to the room, I flicked through a few of the television channels before landing on, to my surprise, the Sixers-Knicks game. It was even the local Philadelphia broadcast, transmitted overseas in real-time at 1:00 in the morning. It was a treat to watch as Elton Brand got back on the court for the first time in over a month, and the Philadelphia commentators narrated the action.

The following morning I got up by 7:30 so I could see the town, as we were scheduled to depart by 10:00. As I walked down the streets on Sunday morning, I found that nothing was open. It seems that even on a weekday, most of the stores wouldn’t have opened till 9:00. I walked down the main strip and then reached an abrupt end to the city where several cranes were plopped in the ground, promising a continuation of the city’s rebuilding phase. I decided to go back to the hotel and get breakfast before returning to the streets at 9:00. Even then, all I found open was a cafe, two newsstands, and a supermarket. This was more than an ordinary supermarket though, complete with an immense selection of toys, dining ware, and various other home products. I bought two bottles of Umbrian wine to take back for dinner, a souvenir from the trip, and rushed back to the hotel to make it for our 9:30 meeting time, only to find that was also running on Italian time, and the woman chaperoning us on the trip did not show up till it was nearly 10:00. At that time we re-boarded the bus and took in the beautiful sights of the Umbrian and Tuscan countryside on our return journey to Firenze

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