Why were the ministers of culture from two Italian provinces, Catania and Salerno, attending a free concert Sunday evening at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage? Or, we might ask, why did they spend most of this week in Washington attending a variety of concerts?
The simplest answer is that four excellent young Italian pianists were making their American debuts and these officials were here to take part in the event: two concerts, Sunday and Wednesday, at the Kennedy Center, one at Catholic University and one at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Less apparent, but perhaps ultimately more important, these government officials and other interested parties were exploring the neighborhood as the possible site for an international music festival.
Festivals come and go; we are now preparing for the Third World Cello Congress in Maryland. But the Washington area has only one major international music festival held regularly each year: the competition and festival given on the University of Maryland's College Park campus.
There used to be a major Italian-American international festival south of here, the Spoleto Festival founded by Gian Carlo Menotti in Charleston, S.C., and the ancient town of Spoleto in Italy. But Menotti severed the Italian connection years ago, and the only remaining trace of it is in the name of the Spoleto Festival, USA.
Menotti turned down bids to start a festival in a variety of other American cities, leaving a vacuum that eventually may be filled in and around Washington. It would take years to get a major festival fully operational, but this week's concerts were a small first step toward a highly speculative destination.
Charleston has one thing to offer in more abundance than Washington: southern charm, embodied in some vintage architecture. But if you can't find much of that these days at the Kennedy Center or in Dupont Circle, it is abundantly available across the river in Alexandria. A different kind of charm can be found down the road in Annapolis, and both towns also have some interesting auditoriums, if needed.
There are dozens of concert halls all over the Washington area, beginning with four good ones in the Kennedy Center, six if you count the two Millennium Stage platforms at either end of the Grand Foyer, seven on those rare occasions when the Experimental Theater Lab is not being used for the cutting humor of "Shear Madness." Plus Lisner Auditorium and the fine auditoriums of many universities, colleges and even high schools. There also are churches, the Sumner Museum and suburban performing arts centers now in operation or development in Fairfax, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
We also have a vigorous music community (not to mention dance, theater and visual arts for a well-rounded arts festival) ready to join visiting artists from elsewhere for a major international festival. Washington may be the next Festival of Two Worlds (the formal and deeply meaningful name Menotti gave to his festival) ready and waiting to happen.
All this was in the subtext when 30-year-old Neapolitan pianist Roberto Cominati sat down Sunday and played the limpid opening notes of a sweetly simple little sonata by Domenico Scarlatti. The music was more complex and energetic in Busoni's transcription (transformation, really) of Bach's great Chaconne for unaccompanied violin.
Then, having established his credentials in Italian music, Cominati went on to well-styled and technically impressive performances of music that was quintessentially French (Debussy), Spanish (Granados) and Russian (Rachmaninoff's monumental Sonata No. 2). It was almost like an international music festival in a single program.