Saturday, December 21, 2013

Roam around Rome: vacations made to measure

Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere

The view from Caffarelli Terrace

Below: lunch at the Terrazza Caffrelli

A view of the Capitol and the Capitoline Musems
Enjoying a glass of Prosecco on the Terrazza
Outside the Capitolini Museum

Below: Scenes of Ancient Rome

Dinner at Harry's Bar

Winemaker and owner Marco Caldani with his excellent Gelso della Valchetta wine
Harry's Bar by night

Rome, Italy--There are rare occasions  when a single event can change the course of your life, or at least your perception of it. Such was the case in a recent Rome Educational Tour sponsored by Promoroma, the special agency of the Chamber of Commerce of Rome, conducted by their consultants, the Roam around Rome tour agency and its affable and accommodating  guides Pier Paolo Meschini and Antonio Rinaldini. Their sensitive portrayal of the history and culture of Rome through the lens of their personal perspective and life-long experience made this a travel experience that transcended the mere physicality of the ancient ruins and monuments, giving them breath,  life and vitality.

Our tour allowed us to experience Rome from the very heights of its grandest vistas to the depths of ancient civilizations buried in hidden labyrinths beneath some of the city's most established treasures. It is these secret chambers and the barely discernible meanings behind the inscriptions etched in stone on their crumbling walls, that the particular insights of our tour guides became most evident.  Their words brought illumination to darkened passageways and faded markings. Personal anecdotes about the ancient families and their fabled past brought the gleaming images of marble statues and fountains into even sharper relief against the azure brilliance of the Roman sky. This was Rome as never seen before, more beautiful, picturesque and storied than any documentary or dramatic film.

A short van ride from the quaint and beautifully appointed Hotel degli Aranci in the "Embassy Row" and orange tree-lined streets of the tony residential neighborhood not far from the Villa Borghese, and our party arrived for an intimate introductory luncheon on the outdoor terrace at the Terrazza Caffarelli high above the steps of the Capitol and atop the beautiful building that hosts the Capitoline Museums in Piazzale Caffarelli. This rare venue, with stunning views of the Capitol and sweeping panoramas of Rome proper, with Vatican City in the distance, offers a unique location for exclusive luncheons, dinners and private receptions as well as meetings and conventions. The management, coordinated by Relais le Jardin, creates events that match the extraordinary surroundings. 

The Capitoline Museums can be traced back to 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated the first group of bronze statues of great symbolic value to the People of Rome. This modest, but significant contribution served as the nucleus to a growing collection closely inked to the city of Rome, its history, culture and its people. Breathing the crisp early winter air and taking in the sun-drenched vistas and the delightfully rich local cuisine prepared by the Relaid le Jardin catering staff made this a truly unique experience that will be long remembered.

Following the fabulous lunch consisting of such local delicacies as Aranchini, Prosciutto, stuffed zuccini flowers and delicate pasta infused with fresh, local truffles, sprinkled with Pecorino Romano cheese and  roasted guinea hen with chestnuts and rapini, we then visited the nearby Domus Romane of Palazzo Velentini. 

The Palazzo Valentini, seat of the Province of Rome since 1873, was commissioned by Cardinal Michele Bonelli, a nephew of Pope Pius V, in 1585. When it underwent renovation in the seventeenth century, the archeological remains of  ancient Roman houses were discovered underneath. A team of art historians, archeologists and architects researched the remains and, through the Provincial Administration, restored the ruins and put the excavations on public display. The result of their work revealed a series of luxurious steam rooms, bathing areas and entertainment centers, punctuated by lavish gardens and gathering, lounging and gaming areas that rival the spas and country clubs of today. This was a significant revelation of the glorious lifestlye experienced by the wealthy elite of ancient Roman society and a glimpse into a highly advanced and sophisticated society that provides the historic underpinnings for the topography and culture of modern day Rome.

A leisurely late afternoon rest and it was time to freshen up and head for dinner in the nearby central area for dinner at Harry's Bar, made famous by the writings of Ernest Hemingway and the creation of the famous  Champagne and white peach nectar drink, the Bellini and Harry's  legendary continental cuisine which has lined the stomachs of celebrities from the literary, political, artistic and film world for decades. Many of the pictures of Harry's most prominent customers through the ages, shaking the hand of its founder Harry Cipriani and the current owner and manager of the Rome location, adorn the walls in its elegant, wood-paneled dining rooms and sumptuous and cozy bar, for which it is world-famous. This was a memorable evening of great cuisine and brilliant company in an historic surrounding that oozed charm. This is the Rome that inspired artists and poets and  La Dolce Vita and I was happy to be a part of it, if only for one evening!

New York Philharmonic gives Handel's Messiah fresh sound with youthful voices

British Guest Conductor Andrew Manze gives new vitality to time-worn Holiday classic

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere December 20, 2013
Guest Conductor Andrew Manze
Westminster Symphonic Choir
Soprano Joelle Harvey
Bass Matthew Rose
Below: Mezzo-Soprano Tamara Mumford

NEW YORK--When George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" had its London premiere at Covent Garden in 1743, critics considered it scandalous that a musical work based on scripture would be performed in such a secular setting and not in a church. In those days, it was an Easter tradition. Now, some 270 years later, his oratory is performed at Christmastime in churches, concert halls, high school auditoriums and at venues normally associated with rock concerts and commercial theatre. "Messiah" has become a fixture of the Holiday season with just as many "sing-it-yourself" and  "best hits of" performances as there are full symphonic presentations, such as the one offered this week by the New York Philharmonic, with guest conductor Andrew Manze in his Philharmonic debut. 

Manze, the British violinist and soon-to-be principal conductor of Hanover, Germany's NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, looked at this ubiquitous work with a fresh eye. He brought with him the quicksilver voices of the Westminster Symphonic choir at Rider University's College of the Arts in Princeton, New Jersey, and a Marvel Team of singing superheroes in the solo parts to help him realize his vision.

From the outset, it was crystal clear that this was not going to be your maiden aunt's rendition of Handel's Messiah. Manze began the work by outlining carefully paced measures in the Sinfonia Overture that allowed the opening themes plenty of breathing room to sink in and lay the groundwork for the massive musical journey ahead. Not simply glorifying the birth of Christ, as predicted in early scripture, which provided the text for Part I,  Handel's oratory then proceeded through his suffering and martyrdom at the Cross, on to his  Resurrection and the eventual resurrection of  all Mankind. It was stirring stuff indeed, which made it abundantly clear why King George II and the London premiere audience were moved to stand during the reading of the Hallelujah Chorus at Covent Garden Theatre, thus sparking a tradition that remains to this day.

British tenor Allan Clayton set the oratorial wheels in motion with his dramatic vocal rendering  of the opening recitative "Comfort ye, my people." Later, his fellow Brit, bass Matthew Rose let loose with a stentorian aria, "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?"  that shook the rafters. If there were anyone dozing in the front rows, or whose mind had drifted off to thoughts of the day's Christmas shopping in Herald Square, they were quickly shaken back to reality and the urgent musical business at hand.

Soprano Joelle Harvey was herself angelic in her lilting rendition of Luke II: "And the angel said unto them, Fear not; behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy."

The ravishingly beautiful mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, in her New York Philharmonic subscription debut, lent an air of mystery to the Air "He was despised," which was so aptly suited to her rich,  soulful voice.

Yet another errant cell phone threatened to burst the mystic spell of music in Avery Fisher Hall.  Thankfully, it was a least tuned to a classically-tinged musical ring-tone, which was quickly, and mercifully,  extinguished. Perhaps it will take more than Alec Baldwin's soothing recorded voice at the outset of each concert to quell the cell phone stampede that threatens to ruin every concert there. Maybe he needs to show up in the flesh in full anti-papparazzi mode!

Guest conductor Manze is to be commended for his skill at navigating Handel's massive and ambitious score, which, in other hands, could have proven unwieldy and unfocused. He allowed the inner voices to develop in the symphonic interludes, emphasizing some lovely and insightful passages in the cello and bass sections. Even the on stage organ and harpsichord could be heard over the orchestral swell at key moments.  Matthew Muckey's burnished trumpet melded perfectly with bass Matthew Rose's stern reading of the Air "The trumpet shall sound."

Manze's approach to the Hallelujah Chorus was the most refreshing of any I have heard. Rather than letting the choir and orchestra proceed full speed ahead as is done in so many performances, he allowed the suspense to build, with careful layering of the counterpoint and fugue written for the voices and orchestra, creating an engaging tapestry of sound. He preceded the finale with a brief, but dramatic pause, allowing thundering notes from the timpani to highlight its stirring climax.  "Bravos!"  emitted by members of the audience were richly deserved.

Handel's Messiah repeats in performance Saturday, December 21, at 7:30 pm. If you've already heard the Messiah elsewhere, rest assured, you've never heard it with such clarity and authority as performed by the New York Philharmonic. For tickets and information, visit
Below: Tenor Allan Clayton