What an extraordinary combination: the Ealing Symphony orchestra from the leafy west London suburb in Lucca’s magnificent baroque church of Santa Maria Corteorlandini and playing that solace-giving life-enhancing, absolutely gorgeous, Rachmaninov second symphony and Elgar too!
Thanks to the energy of Elio Antichi, tenor, impresario, all-round musician, founder and director of Lucca’s famed Baluardi choir for almost thirty years, organiser of the international orchestra season, now in its sixteenth year, and great encourager of youth music this combination flowered into an extraordinary synthesis of sound and architecture.
First, the church: Santa Maria Corteorlandini – or Santa Maria Nera as it is called by the Lucchesi because of the dark statue of the Madonna placed in a side chapel, an exact copy of the Holy House of Loreto, and to distinguish it from Santa Maria Bianca, otherwise known as Santa Maria Fuorisportam. This is my favourite of all Lucca’s hundred churches and it is close to the heart of Antichi too.
Not only is the interior spectacular but the acoustics are absolutely amazing!
The Ealing Symphony orchestra, now going for over ninety years, is one of the UK top amateur orchestras but don’t be put off by that tag ‘amateur’. Its playing is fully professional and does credit to the high standards of British orchestral performances.
As for Rachmaninov, famously described by Stravinsky as ‘six foot six of Russian gloom’, there is nothing gloomy about his second symphony. Dreamy it certainly is and energizing too. Premiered in 1908 the symphony had to be a make-or-break work after the disaster of the composer’s first symphony (largely due to the conductor Glazunov being drunk in charge of an orchestra) which cast Rachmaninov into a depression which was only alleviated by his visit to a hypnotherapist.
I don’t quite know which version of the symphony John Gibbons, the conductor of the Ealing orchestra since 1994, used: the original score was lost for many years, only found in 2004 and sold for over a million pounds. However, the performance did full justice to whatever score was used. What was most extraordinary was how the three-aisled church of Santa Maria Nera accommodated the sound of the excellent brass section of the orchestra. Indeed, the total balance was perfect and each instrumental section was distinctly heard – something often difficult in the usually over-reverberating acoustics of some Luccan churches (San Michele in Foro, in particular…).
After a slightly underwhelming start the slow third movement built up to a pinnacle of pure beauty and redemption. I felt the frescoed Saints of the church’s vaults coming alive in joy at the sound. If any one’s heart isn’t melted by this lovely music then I fear they are not human!
(Part of Rachmaninov’s Symphony no 2)
The Rachmaninov took up the second half of the concert. And what about the first half? Elgar’s passionate ‘In the south (Alassio)’ encapsulated the colours and sensations of Italy from a glorious sunrise to the tramp of Roman legions to the evening shepherd’s song and, as befits an English orchestra, the Ealing Band played it to perfection. Doreen Carwithen’s (William Alwyn’s wife who died just 14 years ago) Bishop Rock Overture was an excellent piece of characteristic 1950’s film music and reminded me that she also wrote the score for the official film of Her Majesty’s coronation.
J. S. Bach’s concerto for two violins saw a much scaled down orchestra (from over fifty to under ten players, in fact) as befits music from the Baroque era. Here was truly a sound that was closest to the architecture of Santa Maria Nera. The E.S.O. showed they could easily tackle the different aesthetics of eighteenth century music with complete conviction and with two superlative soloists (who were the leaders of the strings).
It’s not often one gets a dollop of Elgar in Lucca (Despite Colombini’s efforts) and it was most welcome. To add Bach and Rachmaninov to this dish provided a musical feast which will keep me from going hungry until….well, the next concert in this brilliant season.
For further details of the cornucopia of music events in Lucca throughout the summer (indeed, throughout the rest of the year) do look at the page I edit in English in LuccaMusica’s web page at
Apart from Elio Antichi’s untiring efforts, thanks are also due to the William Alwyn foundation, Luccan generosity and the Santa Maria Nera community for this wonderful free concert.
(The opening of Elgar’s tone poem ‘In the South (Alassio)’
PS If you want to live another day to hear concerts at this lovely church don’t linger outside the front door (usually closed anyway). There’s this notice to consider: