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Italy's Tuscan Sun Fest: Talent in high places

  • Story Highlights
  • Cortona is a magnet for fans of the book and film "Under the Tuscan Sun"
  • Tuscan Sun Festival continues through Thursday
  • Singapore Sun Festival runs October 18 to 30
  • Cecilia Bartoli stepped in for ailing Anna Netrebko on Monday
  • Next Article in Travel »
By Porter Anderson
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CORTONA, Italy (CNN) -- Climb the steep stone alleyways of ancient Cortona at this time of year, past the Piazza d. Republica and up to the Teatro Signorelli, and you'll find the annual Tuscan Sun Festival waiting with the pros and cons associated with many such programs.


Violinist Arabella Steinbacher leads a performance of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" concertos in Cortona.

Easily among the pros is the jaw-dropping setting.

Armed with water bottles and sunscreen, festival goers by day climb to the 600-meter-high Medici fortress for a view down onto the Tuscan plain, and visit spots associated with the 2003 film based on Frances Mayes' book "Under the Tuscan Sun."

Ducking into trattorias to avoid quick rainstorms and seeking shade on some fiercely hot days, music and visual art followers have enlivened what turns out to be a relatively low-key, only mildly commercialized spot, free of the armies of tourists that can swarm nearby Siena, Florence and Rome.

One of the cons of programming a festival of this kind is that the stage is content-hungry. It requires the services of many artists. And when cancellations occur strictly through natural events -- illness, family emergencies and so on -- they can appear to be more frequent than they are because performances are clustered into a weeks-long format.

Many concertgoers who made the hike up to this mountaintop town for the fifth anniversary of the festival may have been disappointed when violinist Joshua Bell and then soprano Anna Netrebko canceled.

But then there are more pros: On Monday night, the the ailing Netrebko was replaced by the better-known and acclaimed Cecilia Bartoli.

And on Friday, the Teatro audience didn't have the pleasure of seeing Bell lead the Russian National Orchestra ensemble in his distinctively agile interpretation of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" quartets, but they did get to "discover" a younger violinist who knows how to seize her moment and run with it.

Fact Box

Del Sole Foundation Festivals

  • Cortona, Italy
    Tuscan Sun Festival
    August 4-16

  • Singapore
    Singapore Sun Festival
    October 18-30

  • Napa Valley, California
    Festival del Sole
    July 11-20, 2008

  • After all, 26-year-old Arabella Steinbacher is no stranger to stepping up when the moment presents itself: Her loudly cheered 2004 Paris debut put her onstage with Sir Neville Mariner and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France when a colleague became ill.

    Born in Munich to a German father and Japanese mother, Steinbacher plays a 1716 Stradivari violin named the Booth (for an Englishwoman who once bought it for her son). The instrument, provided in an arrangement with the Nippon Music Foundation, has a particularly luminous tone in its upper registers. And the musician enjoys personal support from fellow German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

    If Vivaldi's popular suite of 18th-century "musical paintings" of spring, summer, fall and winter is something most of the audience members could have hummed in their sleep, Steinbacher seemed determined to give it a fresh sheen. In this, she follows Bell, who this season created a newly energized version of the music with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

    Having made the most of the lucky accident of her chance to take the stage, Steinbacher followed by announcing two lush tango-charged works of the late Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla.

    And the evening's second half was dominated by another demanding effort, this time the Moscow-born oboist Alexei Ogrintchouk.

    He delivered the the oboe concerto of Richard Strauss, pumping out long, steady arcs of sound over the Russian National Orchestra ensemble conducted by Stéphane Denève. So difficult a breathing feat is the work that Ogrintchouk at times appeared almost to be gasping for air between phrases. The packed house followed every note, and cheered the oboist to an encore of his own, a reprise of a passage from the concerto.

    After Thursday's conclusion to the Cortona festival with highlights from "Carmen" in the city's Piazza Santa Margherita, the "sun" festival operation for 2007 -- kicked off in Napa Valley in July -- next opens its newest installment, a festival in Singapore slated to run October 18 through 30. Read about the Napa start to this year's series of festivals

    "Singapore is interesting," says Del Sole Foundation impresario Barrett Wissman, "because you have Chinese culture, Indian culture, Muslim culture, Malaysian and Indonesian cultures, all in one place. And a colonial culture.

    "We have a lot of wonderful Western artists. We have (violinist) Pinchas Zuckerman, we have (pianist) Piotr Anderszewski coming, we have Mikhail Pletnev," founder of the Russian National Orchestra.

    "And then we also have the Soweto Gospel Choir coming from South Africa, we have Chinese artists and wellness programs."

    Meanwhile, Cortona's Etruscan museum hums with visitors, who can hear the sisters of the Church of the Trinity singing the Nona. The stately shell of Sant Agostino houses a special exhibition of J. Henry Fair's "Industrial Scars" series of toxic waste sites-gone-abstract under his lens.

    And musicians and audience members mingle over the region's sangiovese-based wines from nearby Montepulciano.

    And so August is springtime for Cortona, bustling with the added boost of the festival's traffic and yet still enough out of the way -- about a 90-minute drive down Italy's A1 expressway from Florence -- to slow down the most casual sightseers. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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