Europe for the Senses

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Languid strolls along the Seine and sumptuous cheeses in Paris…swimming au naturel in the warm Mediterranean waters of Barcelona and Lesvos…watching a lingering sunset framed by playful seagulls as my ferry coursed through the Greek islands.

As if all this pleasure was not enough, two events that I was fortunate enough to attend stand out as special highlights of my trip. Both open-air live music concerts, they will stay with me for a long, long time to come because of the unforgettable way that they stimulated my senses on every level.

The first artist was Savina Yannatou, a Greek singer who performed as part of the International Women’s Festival in the village of Skala Eresos on Lesvos island, which I wrote about in my last post. I knew nothing about her other than that she was quite famous—so much so that people were coming to Skala Eresos from other cities, and perhaps even other islands, to see her perform.

The show took place in a lovely outdoor cinema located just next to the adorable little pension where I was renting a room. Although the weather had been oppressively hot for the entire week of my stay, on the day of the concert it suddenly turned extremely cold. Many concert-goers, then—including myself—violated the dressy protocol of the evening by shamelessly wrapping ourselves in blankets that we had dragged from our rooms to block the freezing wind.

Once Savina came onstage and began performing, however, I personally forgot about the cold (well, almost!)…that’s how powerful her stage presence was. Her incredibly wide vocal range was apparent from the very first song, which included clicking and whirring sounds that I would actually describe as more birdlike than human. (Sort of reminded me of violinist and vocalist Aska Kaneko, who I am a huge follower of in Tokyo). The songs came from a number of countries across the Mediterranean and beyond, and with each one Yannatou seemed to demonstrate a new and more amazing vocal technique. At one point, I heard someone sitting nearby whisper that and both she and her outstanding piano accompanyist, Evgenia Karlayti, were actually improvising! WOW.

I don’t want to sound like I am mystifying or exoticizing this experience, but sitting outside in the open-air theater, with the winds blowing and Yanatou singing song after lovely song in her ethereal sounding voice, I felt like there was nowhere else in the world I would have rather been in that moment. Totally incredible. (I also picked up a CD of her performing live, so I get to continue to enjoy her work! )

The second event took place last night in Firenze (Florence), Italy—the last evening of the season for the 2009 Florence Chamber Music Festival. The concert was held in an open plaza inside the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, and featured the works by two composers—both for some reason Hungarian Jewish men named Gyorgy (Ligeti and Kurtag, to be precise)…thanks, Wikipedia! 🙂  I had been hoping to attend an event like this while in Europe—chamber music in a historical setting—and the evening in fact could not have been more perfect.

I had spent the day touring some of Florence’s most famous museums, and found myself trying to come to terms with the fact that I actually would have preferred wandering aimlessly around the city and discovering my own adventures rather than spending excessive sums of money to end up standing in endless queues with seemingly every other tourist in the city. Understandable, perhaps…but I still felt like I should have been making more of an effort to appreciate and be inspired by these hugely famous Renaissance art treasures.

Coming to this concert, however, allowed me to finally appreciate the grandeur of this city in my own way. (Not surprising, I guess, as I always have been more of a musically inclined person than a visual art fan!) The works of these composers—one of whose immediate family were nearly all killed in the Holocaust–were intensely eerie and haunting. Listening to these outstanding musicians (vocalists, pianists, violinists, and a contrabassist) perform piece after amazing piece, with stars twinkling above me and 400 or 500 year-old marble statues peering down at me from all four sides, I was finally able to experience that feeling of being intensely moved that I imagine art lovers must have when visiting their favorite museums.

I  also learned that the Bargello used to be a prison. Given this history, as well as the sad history on Lesvos island of the horrific population exchange with Turkey back in the 1920’s, I like to think that the energies stirred up from both of these amazing performances were able to somehow travel back through time to generate some sort of healing.

In any case, they were both amazing experiences for me personally, for which I am extremely thankful.

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