The green white and red Italian flag blew gently in the night air that still held the heat of the day. The musicians played the Italian national anthem and the assembled crowd stood to attention, many quietly singing the words of the hymn to Italian unity that Goffredo Mameli, a young patriot, wrote in 1847. It has been the Italian national anthem ever since Italy became a republic 65 year ago.
We could have been anywhere in Italy. Only the humidity suggested somewhere more southerly — that and the sprinkling of thobes in the crowd.
The Italian community in Jeddah was out in force last Thursday, March 17, at the city’s Italian Cultural Center and in notably nationalist mood. It was the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Italy — to the day. On March 17, 1861, King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia accepted the crown of a united Italy.
The Italians are not known as fervent nationalists — not in the narrow political sense. Mussolini put them off it. They do not beat the Italian drum or wrap themselves around the flag, unlike some other nations. They do not need to. They know they have a culture that the whole world has embraced. They have, arguably, the best cuisine in the world. The French, Chinese and Indians may object but there are almost no French restaurants in Italy compared to the wealth of Italian ones in France, and Italian restaurants are moving fast into Chinese and Indian cities. At the very least, think simply pizza and pasta, and that is only a small part of it.
The Italians know too the world adores their fashion and design. Think Gucci, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace. Think Prada, Ferragamo and Max Mara. Think, too, Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini. Italian design, whether in products or in art and architecture has been an inspiration far beyond its bounds, right from the time of the renaissance more than 500 years ago till now.
Music is the third pillar of Italian culture — although it is less known in Saudi Arabia than elsewhere in the world. It was this that Jeddah’s Italians, along with their Saudi and other friends, had come to hear on Thursday at the center. For the night, it was Jeddah’s open-air concert hall.
To mark the anniversary, The Rome String Quartet, flown to Jeddah especially for the occasion, played works by Gaetano Donizetti, Giacomo Puccini and two relatively unknown Italian composers Giulio Ricordi, who was Puccini’s mentor and publisher, and Giovanni Battista Viotti. The concert, followed by a lavish dinner, was hosted by the Italian Consulate and the Italian Cultural Circle and sponsored by Saudi Arabian Airlines and Habitat Hotel.
Perhaps there might have been more music connected to the Risorgimento (Resurgence), as the movement for Italian unification is known. Donizetti and Viotti died years before unification was achieved and Puccini was just two years old when it happened. Only Ricordi lived though it, and he was not so much a composer as a publisher of music. The most famous of composer connected to it, Giuseppe Verde, who legitimately stands as the official composer to Italy’s unification, was strangely absent for the concert. Perhaps the fact that he wrote just one string quartet may have had something to do with it.
Like Verdi, Donizetti is more usually thought of as a composer of operas, most famously Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale and Lucrezia Borgia. He wrote 75 of them. Most are rarely heard these days although "Una furtiva lagrima" from his L'elisir d'amore is instantly recognizable and one of the most recorded of all arias for tenor.
His quartet No. 5 in E minor was a revelation, particularly the first movement, and firmly convinced this reviewer of the need to buy a recording.
Puccini’s short, haunting elegy “Chrysanthemums” was perhaps the best-known work performed at the concert. It was sensitively and beautifully played. Normally that might go without saying for a group like The Rome String Quartet, but it could not have been easy keeping their instruments in tune; it became ever more humid as the night wore on.
The other two works “A Small Intermission” by Ricordi and Viotti’s quartet No. 2 in B flat major were completely unknown but delightful. The second movement of the quartet was strongly reminiscent of the 18th-century fandangos of Luigi Boccherini and Antonio Soler. But then all three works were roughly contemporaneous. Viotti was clearly more an 18th century composer in style, although he died in 1824.
There were one or two niggles. One was the amplification. It was too loud. Because few in the audience were equidistant from the speakers, most of them could hear only what came from the nearest one. That had the effect of flattening the music and making it sound like an old monophonic recording. All depth was lost. A blast of feedback at one point during the last movement of the Donizetti was so loud that the audience had to cover their ears and the musicians stop altogether. The whole issue of amplification presumably will be fixed for future concerts, a number are also planned to mark this year’s unification anniversary.
Far more annoying was the use of mobile phones. Amazingly there were one or two people who thought it acceptable behavior to ruin the enjoyment of those around them with whispered phone conversations. More common but just as unacceptable was the regular sound of incoming text messages and the rush to key in and send off replies. As for playing games on their phones, it was just as distracting. Next time, hopefully, the phone addicts will have learned to switch them off or stay at home.
The niggles notwithstanding, it was a most enjoyable evening and the next in the series is eagerly awaited. The Italians are doing a great job promoting a culture that is not only theirs but now the world’s.