The Remarkable “Official Bands” of Italy


One of the many simple pleasures of living in Italy is attending the numerous live musical performances offered by many towns throughout the year. These showcase local talent as well as occasional performers from other countries.

Musicians of global renown principally perform in the big cities with big audiences. But smaller towns attract performers from the region and elsewhere in the country. Italy has a plethora of music conservatories that produce a continuing bounty of talent. Our own son is enrolled in one of these, studying operatic voice. His voice, it appears, is a rare type known as contratenor.

Every other year, our village sponsors classical musicians from Japan. They make use of practice rooms and sleeping quarters on a floor of a former grand palazzo that has been converted into a multipurpose cultural center and community library. At the conclusion of their two-week stay, there are evening performances in the small opera house a few doors away. In the meantime, their rehearsal of pieces can be heard merely by sitting outside the bar across the street. The sound emanating from the rooms, with their windows and shutters open, is amplified by the masonry walls lining the street. Starting the day in a sidewalk café with cappuccino and live classical music wafting from above is hard to beat.

Poster for the April 23 concert by the town’s official band (Image: Municipality of Porto San Giorgio website).

Larger towns have their own magnificently appointed opera houses built hundreds of years ago. Most city-sponsored performances are free, as Italians have always placed great importance on access to culture for people of all ages and economic means. As is traditional, the curving upper tiers of box seats, with individual cushioned chairs, are popular. No longer does one need to be a noble or wealthy patron to occupy those elegant boxes; it’s first come, first seated.

I was visiting some Italian friends, who were taking a holiday for the national celebration of Liberation Day on April 25, in the beachfront town of Porto San Giorgio. Walking about, I spotted a large, colorful poster. As a prelude to the annual festivities, the city was sponsoring a concert in commemoration of its patron saint — Saint George. Yup, THAT Saint George. The guy, who legend has it, slayed an evil dragon to save a princess that was about to be sacrificed to the voracious beast. I’m surprised that Disney does not have a musical version of that story.

Printed posters are still used here — old school — to advertise events, despite the internet. They are pasted on blank walls and the facades of empty buildings. They are often displayed in multiples, which seems more artful than redundant. Trouble is, we often find that something vitally important has been left off the poster — like the date, the location, or the time. That’s because locals know where the venue is and likely know exactly when regular events are scheduled (most often 9:15 pm). To them, the information we are wanting is extraneous. We never used to attend these concerts when we would visit Italy; it took us the first two years to figure out how. Turns out, you just have to ask around.

The concert was given by the official band of the Comune (Municipality) of Porto San Giorgio, which is in the Marche region of east-central Italy. Many cities and even small towns have their own bands used for celebrations and special events. The term “official band” is perhaps an understatement, perhaps bringing to mind rows of amateur musicians marching along a street, while playing horns and beating drums.

Not at all. In Porto San Giorgio, the band is a 50-piece orchestra, as professional as any other I have seen. Complete with strings, harp, oboe, flutes, bassoons, and an entire section of various clarinets. The male musicians were dressed in crisp white tuxedo jackets, the female musicians in elegant black dresses.

They played a remarkable range of music from different eras and of different types. The concert opened with a full-throttled rendition of Rossini’s La gazza ladra, aka The Thieving Magpie. Its repeating and gradually louder sections built to an explosive finale in which the entire orchestra blasted out a long, crashing crescendo. The floorboards vibrated; I got goosebumps.

Next up was Waltz no. 2, by Shostakovich. Some of the passages are instantly recognizable, as they are often used in films to suggest foolish antics in a storyline or to underscore an ironic ending to a scene. After several more crowd-pleasing classics, a flick of the conductor’s baton transformed the players into a Big Band, with fast swing dance tunes by Benny Goodman. I imagined World War II soldiers on leave, flipping their partners overhead, stockings exposed, and then sliding them backwards on the polished wood floor between their splayed legs. A robust Henry Mancini medley followed, with the Pink Panther theme comprising a signature segment.

These spirited pieces were followed by a compressed score from an epic film that I last saw in the 1960s when I was 14 — Around the World in 80 Days. As with other sweeping, wide-screen films of that era, it had an all-star, international cast, including a young Shirley MacLaine and a suave David Niven. The Mexican actor Cantinflas provided comic relief. Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich made appearances.

Preceding every piece on the program, their provenance was explained in a lively tutorial delivered by an eloquent, statuesque woman in fashionable evening gown. No somber Alistair Cooke type, she displayed her obvious enthusiasm with animated pacing and gestures. I’ve seen these ebullient characters before at many performances in Italy, sustaining the role of the medieval era “Announcer” to the present day.  

As seems to be required of all civic performances, a series of public officials and special guests were invited onto the stage to make remarks and offer kudos between sections of the concert. These intermissions included the mayor, as usual. This concert brought up the exquisitely uniformed head of the carabinieri (local branch of the national police), and an even more sartorially superior commandant of the Italian Navy, as his ship happened to be in port. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a stylish mix of people, words, and music. Not for nothing does the clever Fiat ad, with its riff on Paul Revere’s ride, proclaim “The Italians are coming! The Italians are coming!” — as the agrarian colonists morph into high-fashion models while the red cars approach.  

The municipal theatre in Porto San Giorgio (Photo: Hinshaw).

At the conclusion, Maestro Mirco Barani, the beefy conductor, turned around on his podium and directed the audience in the rousing chorus of the national anthem, known as “Inno di Mameli,” after its composer and adopted in 1946 when Italy rejected its monarchy and elected a democratic parliament. When sung by a big standing group, the Italian anthem is gripping. Neither serious nor solemn, I think one could dance to it. Or at least rock on one’s heels. It invites exuberant participation in a loud voice.

Concerts in Italy often go to midnight — well past the service hours for buses. No hope of returning home at that hour. Prior to attending, I found a small, quaint hotel along the beachfront and checked into a room with a balcony facing the sea. During my brief stay, a long religious procession passed by, complete with a statue of Saint George held aloft.

The next morning, I had a sumptuous breakfast of eggs, fruit, fresh-baked pastries, and cappuccino in the garden room of the hotel. I could not help but watch a giant, flatscreen TV on the opposite wall. The daily program featured a philosopher from the University of Rome commenting at length about the long-term societal impacts of current geopolitical events.

Cicero would surely be pleased.

Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.



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