Close Encounters With Music brings a touch of Tuscany to South County

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GREAT BARRINGTON — As a wintery chill settles over the Berkshires, a warm Tuscan breeze will waft over the Mahaiwe stage on Saturday, carrying with it musical memories of sun-drenched Italian days gone by.

Close Encounters With Music artistic director and Israeli-born cellist Yehuda Hanani describes the upcoming concert, "Souvenir de Florence: An Italian Holiday Celebration," as a "Grand Tour in music." Performed by The Amernet String Quartet, it will evoke the essence of Italy as experienced by visiting composers from colder climes, as well as those who called the region home.

In the 19th century, Hanani explains, those with artistic interests visited Rome and Florence as a rite of passage, soaking up the sounds, sights and senses and expressing their experiences through works of art, literature and music.

"We are taking our audience on this Grand Tour to bask in the miracle of Italy which gave us so much of the culture that we recognize today," he said.

The enduring influence of Italy stretches from the miracle of the Renaissance to the language of musical terminology, as it was "the home of music in Europe for a long, long time," he noted.

The program's first half offers a potpourri of reflections on Italy, and includes two instrumental works by renowned opera composers. A rare string quartet by Verdi is paired with Puccini's "Chrysanthemums," a piece Hanani calls "delightful" and "very sentimental." Puccini composed it in memory of a dear friend, and named it for the flower associated with mourning in Italy. They are joined by "Italian Serenade," an entertaining excursion by Hugo Wolf.

Tchaikovsky's string sextet "Souvenir de Florence" fills the second half of the concert.

Hanani describes it as "very Russian" and incorporating an Italian song melody. Tchaikovsky wrote it following a visit to Italy at the invitation of Baroness von Meck, his wealthy Russian patron. At her insistence they never met in person, but instead conducted an extended and intimate correspondence, Hanani explained.

"This was the happiest time of his life," Hanani said.

As an international performer and teacher with a hectic travel schedule that lately included China, Korea and the South of France, Hanani recently journeyed from the Midwest to the Middle East and back, sandwiching in a welcome visit "home" to his native Israel between two teaching sessions in Cincinnati.

When Hanani visited Florence and the picturesque Tuscan hill towns some years ago, he found it to be a place "where history is built into the stone walls," not unlike Jerusalem, he noted.

Like the composers eager to escape northern winters who flocked to Italy to absorb the rosemary scented air, sunshine and blue sky, he said, "the main thrust of the concert is to celebrate holiday spirit and Italian exuberance and sunshine, the Mediterranean joy of life."

The tour guide for this musical journey is Miami-based Amernet String Quartet, whose members — Misha Vitenson and Franz Felkl, violins, Michael Klotz, viola and Jason Calloway, cello — have performed extensively in the Americas and Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and on several occasions closer to home at Williams College. Hanani and violist Xiao-Dong Wang join Amernet for the sextet.

Amernet was formed in 1991 by graduates of the University of Cincinnati conservatory, where Hanani teaches. "I remember them starting out," he said, "they've been our guests numerous times and we've commissioned pieces together."

Violinist Vitensen, who was born in Uzbekistan to violinist parents and immigrated to Israel in 1990, has played with Amernet for the past 15 years. Like the composers, he has fond memories of his own visits to Italy and Florence.

Describing the program, he noted that, while Tchaikovsky's work is "Russian through and through," the boisterous first movement resembles Italian themes. Austrian Wolf composed just this one movement of a full quartet before mental illness took its toll, he said.

"They're all challenging in different ways," he said. "Tchaikovsky is the most robust, as Russian music often is. The Verdi is such a delicate work, very tricky in terms of ensemble, but it still has that operatic melodic quality."

There's a certain elegance to the piece that has Italian flavor, he noted.

Puccini's piece has "typical harmony put into a string quartet setting, lush and melancholic and sort of dark as Puccini can be," he added, while the Hugo Wolf work is the "lightest, most delicate.

"For those who love chamber music, the concert covers a lot of bases."


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