After periods of great suffering, “it is in the nature of people to always look ahead and take the direction of progress,” maintains Darko Krstic, acting director of the 91-year-old Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra, which is embarking on its first U.S. tour. The experience of his institution provides a case in point, he says. The devastating Balkan wars of the 1990s — which led to NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 — took a grave toll on the orchestra.
“I don’t think the war brought anything good to anyone. This was especially true for the field of culture, which is the most fragile of all public domains,” Krstic said, speaking by phone from Belgrade.
Still, in the years since the conflict, the Belgrade Philharmonic has recovered, looked ahead and instituted new practices and programs, making progress that has “exceeded all expectations and limits,” Krstic says.
Testifying to that progress is the American tour, which will bring the orchestra to Strathmore on Wednesday. (The tour also alights in Chicago, Cleveland and New York.) The announced repertoire for the Strathmore performance includes Khachaturian’s “Masquerade” suite and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2. Also on the lineup: Suite No. 1 from Serbian composer and conductor Stevan Hristic’s “The Legend of Ohrid,” a folklore-steeped, post-romantic ballet set during Ottoman rule. Expect a “Janissary Dance.”
Hristić (1885-1958) was the founder of the Belgrade Philharmonic, which went on to flourish particularly in the 1960s and ’70s. Following the Balkan conflict at the end of the 20th century, Ivan Tasovac, now Serbia’s minister of culture, signed on as general manager and helped the institution get back on its feet.
In recent years, the orchestra has launched some notable programs, including a series of concerts featuring female conductors (cheekily titled “On High Heels”); a series called “Bizarrte,” aimed at attracting new and younger audiences (it has showcased musical instruments made from upcycled garbage); and a regional cooperation project with the philharmonics of Croatia and Slovenia, nations that also once were part of Yugoslavia.
Krstić says the orchestra’s musicians are almost all Serbian and that the shared background contributes to a unifying sensibility that is evident in the orchestra’s “striking” presentational style and sound.
That sound has been shaped recently by Muhai Tang, the Chinese maestro who became the orchestra’s chief conductor in 2010. “He has great energy — incredible energy,” the orchestra’s co-concertmaster, violinist Tijana Milosevic, said, speaking from Belgrade.
Another baton-wielder who has played a significant role in the Belgrade Philharmonic’s welfare has been the classical music superstar Zubin Mehta, who first conducted the ensemble in 1958 and apparently has had a soft spot for it ever since. He has lent his name to a foundation whose mission includes supporting the construction of a new concert hall for the orchestra. Those dancing janissaries, and other musical spirits, need space to flourish.
The BPO concert is not the only intriguing piece of classical music programming that international musicians are volleying our way. The cultural division of the Embassy of Italy once again is preparing to host Cameristi della Scala, the chamber orchestra composed of musicians from the orchestra of Milan’s renowned theater.
On Wednesday, the group, including violinist Francesco Manara, will perform an equinox-themed program: “Antonio Vivaldi, Astor Piazzolla: The Eight Seasons.”
Those eight seasons would, of course, be the Vivaldi staple “The Four Seasons,” plus Piazzolla’s “Las cuatro estaciones porteñas” (which can be translated as “The Four Buenos Aires Seasons”). Piazzolla (1921-1992), an Argentine composer, revolutionized the tango tradition in the mid-20th century. Born into a family with Italian roots, he paid homage to the Italian Vivaldi (1678-1741) in the Buenos Aires suite, which contains allusions to the Italian compositions.
Pairing the two sets of pieces creates “a kind of game of opposites,” Cameristi vice chairman and violinist Roberto Nigro said by phone from Milan, pointing out that Argentina, in the Southern Hemisphere, experiences winter while Italy and other Northern Hemisphere lands bask in summer, and vice versa.
Nigro calls the “Eight Seasons” program an exhilarating musical travelogue. “It’s a concentrated synthesis of what two different continents can offer,” he says, noting that the Cameristi first performed the Vivaldi-Piazzolla pairing for an audience of thousands in the square outside Milan’s cathedral. “We were shocked because, during the concert, there was a religious silence in the square” as people concentrated on the parallels and contrasts between the two sets of “seasons,” Nigro recalls.
A few days after the Cameristi concert, on Oct. 14, the Italian Embassy will host Neapolitan pianist Marco Ciampi, fresh from his Oct. 12 Carnegie Hall debut. At the embassy, Ciampi will perform a program titled “Italy Today and Yesterday,” featuring, among other pieces, a Scarlatti sonata and “Playing Love,” by the prolific Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who is best known for his film work (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” etc.). Ciampi also will perform at the Kreeger Museum on Oct. 15 in a concert mounted in partnership with the Italian Embassy.
Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra. Oct. 8 at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.
Cameristi della Scala, “Antonio Vivaldi, Astor Piazzolla: The Eight Seasons.” Oct. 8 at the Embassy of Italy, 3000 Whitehaven St. NW, Washington. Visit www.iicwashington.esteri.it.
Pianist Marco Ciampi. Oct. 14 at the Embassy of Italy, 3000 Whitehaven Street NW, Washington: Visit www.iicwashington.esteri.it. Oct. 15 at the Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW, Washington: Visit www.kreegermuseum.org.
Wren is a freelance writer.