Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Learning From a Virtuoso; Carlo Aonzo in New York City

From March 18-21, 2010, Carlo Aonzo presented a mandolin workshop at Chelsea Studios in New York City. Aonzo is one of the finest classical mandolinists in the world, and his highly anticipated workshop is in its 10th year.

According to Chiam Caron, who has organized the workshops from the beginning, “One day in 2001 I was driving around New York with Carlo, and he said, ‘I think I’d like to have a mandolin workshop in New York.’ That first workshop was about 9 people in my apartment.” Since that time, both the notoriety and attendance have steadily grown. Now, mandolin players join together from all over the US and Canada for the opportunity to experience the mandolin through the heart and soul of Carlo Aonzo.

One such student is Kristine Massari, owner of Trumpets Jazz Club and Restaurant in Montclair, NJ. Massari plays a classical, bowl back mandolin as second chair in the Bloomfield Mandolin Orchestra, and even she found the material challenging. “These are serious musicians who play at a high level.” Although the music is distributed to students months before the workshop, she observed that since the demands of each person’s life are different, not everyone could prepare to the same extent.

During the workshop, Aonzo teaches the finer points of nuance, style, dynamics and ensemble playing. “I learned how to be conducted and he made us aware of how certain passages should be played. He also exposed us to pieces by classical and contemporary composers, and taught us to listen more critically,” says Massari. “Carlo has a nice way of dealing with people and his interpretation of the music is very special because he is such a sensitive player.”

The workshop provided not only the opportunity to grow as a musician, but also to share the love of this music. Depending upon where you live, playing the mandolin can be isolating if there is little community support for the instrument in orchestras or ensembles. By bringing players together from all over North America, the workshop experience created camaraderie, solidarity and the opportunity to reinvigorate the players’ passion for the instrument.

To learn more about Carlo Aonzo and future workshops, click here. Carlo’s newest CD, Fantasia Poetica, with Elena Buttiero, explores repertory for mandolin and piano and can be purchased through his website.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Evolution of Italian Cuisine in the American Psyche

John Mariani is a journalist and author of over 10 books on food, wine and gastronomy. The Philadelphia Enquirer called him “the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press.” He has been nominated three times for a James Beard Journalism Award. On March 24, 2010, NYU’s Casa Italiana hosted his presentation of The History of Italian Cuisine in New York City.

Joining Mariani in the discussion was Tony May, owner of SD26 Restaurant & Wine Bar in NYC and Chairman of Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani. Prior to SD26, May owned one of Manhattan’s most celebrated restaurants, San Domenico’s, and before that, Il Palio.

Mariani began his presentation in Italy’s distant past, summarizing its culinary development from Pre-Roman times through the Middle Ages, the revelations of Christoper Columbus to the Great Migration from Italy to America. One of the highlights was the work of Pelligrino Artusi who published a cookbook, L’Arte di Mangiar Bene (The Art of Eating Well), in Italy in 1891. According to Mariani, this was a book whose time had come. Italy had a literate middle class for the first time in its history and Artusi’s book was written for them. Written in Tuscan Italian, it sold 283,000 copies by 1910 and its popularity had a tremendous effect on not only the development of Italian kitchens but also on the Italian language.

Any conversation of Italian American cuisine has to include pizza and spaghetti, and Mariani did not disappoint. The Pizza Margarita we all know and love was named for Italy’s 19th century, very popular queen. The dominance of tomato, basil and mozzarella was in homage to the Italian flag. Pizza was unknown outside of Naples until America’s first pizzeria, Lombardi’s, opened on Spring Street in NYC in 1910. As an indication of Neapolitan pizza’s continuing influence, in November 2009 the European Union protected it with its Traditional Specialty Guarantee (TSG) label.

Spaghetti was known in Italy as macaroni in the 13th century and as vermicelli in the 14th. The word ‘spaghetti’ wasn’t used until 1837. But the real question surrounding spaghetti is, why did Italian Americans invent spaghetti and meatballs? Even today, our relatives in Italy disavow any contribution to this ubiquitous American dish. Sometimes they just shrug their shoulders, and other times are almost horrified at the idea. Mariani provided the best explanation I’ve heard so far about the creation and popularity of a big bowl of steaming spaghetti topped with meatballs the size of tennis balls. According to Mariani, a side dish of small rounds of meat, known as polpetta, was known in Southern Italy. However, Italian immigrants left behind a country that could barely feed them anything, much less meat, with any regularity. After experiencing the relative abundance of America, these same immigrants infused their kitchens with the symbolism of their new lives. They took polpetta and made them much larger and placed them atop the steaming platter of spaghetti as if to say, ‘meat is so plentiful in America we can have as much as we want, with whatever we want.’

The importance of Italians in America’s food industry continued to grow, from shops to restaurants, wine and canning factories. When Delmonico’s Restaurant opened its doors in New York in 1837, it was the first restaurant in the world outside of Paris. Just take a moment and think about that. We take this kind of dining experience so much for granted, but there was a time when the thought of being seated at a table, presented with a menu and being served exactly what you ordered was a very strange idea. Italians were on the leading edge.

Mariani believes that 3 major events advanced the American palette regarding Italian food: 1) modern access to authentic Italian ingredients in restaurants and so many boutique and grocery stores; 2) cultural cues such as the popularity of Italian fashion and the eating habits of its icons as well as popular films depicting Italian characters’ emphasis on cooking and eating (The Godfather, Big Night); 3) the recognition of the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet.

Tony May joined the discussion by emphazing that authentic Italian cuisine is based on products; the better the quality of ingredients, the better the product. Like Mariani, he credited the invention of the jet plane with allowing American chefs to access genuine Italian ingredients in a way never known before. Services like FedEx and DHL rush prized constituents from the hills of Parma or the Bay of Naples to American tables. Although he believes “we still have a long way to go”, he credited food journalists with pushing American taste forward, beyond garlic and tomato sauce (not there’s anything wrong with that!).

To learn about future events at NYU's Casa Italiana, click here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Daughters of Cybele Celebrate the Spring Equinox at St. John the Divine in NYC

Women’s voices, drums, sweat and passion rang in the 2010 Spring Equinox on March 20 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The Daughters of Cybele are billed as “a unique ensemble of women honoring the healing power of the female energy”, and they live up to every word of it. The Daughters are the result of a long-held dream by Alessandra Belloni, recognized as one of the world’s finest percussionists and an expert on Southern Italian dance and drum rituals.

Cybele is the Mother Earth Goddess from Turkey after whom Belloni chose to name her troupe. She thrives on the physical and spiritual strength conveyed by women over the centuries in chants and dance. This strength, says Belloni, is what women today need to rediscover and make their own. This strength can be drawn from a vital connection with the Earth and Nature’s forces.

Saturday’s performance took place on the altar of St. James Chapel, with its ceiling-high stone carved marble figures as a breathtaking backdrop. The seven women dressed in flowing red and white costumes raised their voices and drums, performing centuries old healing and work chants from Italy, France, Spain and Brazil. Also included were compositions by Belloni, drawing from her profound life experiences and global musical influences.

The songs themselves spoke deeply to the whole spectrum of feminine experience, whether honoring powerful Goddesses or laying low in the desolation of betrayal. One of Belloni’s works, Requiem Per Mamma Elvira, is a memorial of her mother’s passing and honors the unconditional love of the Universal Mother and rebirth of all things. Another of Belloni’s compositions, Figlia Di Oxun, portrays the Brazilian shamanic journey in honor of the Goddess Oxun and the Black Madonna. In a more lighthearted vein, the Brazilian chant, Canto Da Sereja, is sung to coax the mermaids out of the sea to play in the sand.

Besides Belloni, the members of the ensemble include Susan Aquila on the acoustic and electric Viper 6-string violin, dance, shakers and vocals; Olympia Avignone on African percussion, frame drums, bells and chekere; Lorraine Calculli on frame drums, tambourine and shakers; Allison Scola vocals, clarinet, tambourine, shakers and ritual dance; Eve Sicular on drumset, dumbeck, frame drums, shakers; Cynthia Enfield provided narration, vocals, shakers and ritual dance.

Members of the ensemble performed traditional dances and sometimes encouraged the audience to join them. It was especially in those moments, dancing and whirling in the Chapel aisle amid the chants and beats of frame drums, shakers and tamburello that the evening hit its emotional highpoints. Dancing the steps, hearing the words and feeling the connection to every woman who ever lived and will live was the rare gift of the Daughters of Cybele.

Alessandra Belloni conducts workshops throughout the world on the feminine power of drumming and dancing. Every August, you can journey with her to Tuscany for her signature workshop, Rhythm is the Cure. This year, the dates are August 22 – 29. To learn more, visit alessandrabelloni.com.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

From Images to Music and Back Again - An Evening with Vinicio Capossela and Gianfranco Firriolo

Vinicio Capossela.

On March 4, 2010 Manhattan’s Italian Cultural Institute played host to Vinicio Capossela and Gianfranco Firriolo as they showcased their film, La Faccia Della Terra (The Face of the Land). As a creative force, enigmatic storyteller and vagabond Capossela defies easy categorization. He is a musician, composer, author, performance artist, actor and screenwriter (so far). Firriolo is a film director, photographer and host for the Italian TV magazine, Nonsolomoda.

Capossela and Firriolo collaborated on the film to illustrate the creative process of Capossela’s latest CD, Da Solo, and to document part of the U.S tour. The storyline turns in on itself, weaving circles and figure-eight’s, blending beginnings and endings. Rather than shoot another ‘behind the scenes’ style documentary, Firriolo shot La Faccia Della Terra more as an impressionist painting emerging in a sea of realism. It’s not necessarily the journey you expect, but if agree to go along for the ride, your world will expand.

Gianfranco Firriolo.

The film opens and closes in a very similar way; the same snow-covered tram glides on the tracks of the Milanese street and the same song is heard. The same man in the same flannel shirt carries wood in the falling snow. According to Firriolo, this tram is significant because “it passes by Vinicio’s house and it carried me when I was a boy.” The film itself lies between these repeated images. Vinicio is seen in his home writing the film on a typewriter. From there, certain images reference the songs he had already written for Da Solo, and other images gave birth to songs that would later appear on the CD. Circles within circles.

Throughout, the film plays with sounds, images and expectations. Capossela coaxes music out of a toy piano and unevenly-filled water glasses. In Texas he and his band play at the Broken Spoke Bar. Capossela says it made him feel “very exotic. Usually you find some Italians in every place, but not at the Broken Spoke.” The audience, dressed in cowboy boots and hats, were ready for their usual night of line dancing. Despite his unexpected appearance, Capossela says he was received warmly by the crowd.

Jump to New York City where a cabdriver re-tells the day he saw Sophia Loren on the sidewalk. He called her name, she smiled and nodded as if to say, “Yes, it’s me.”

A Midwestern carnival and sideshow provided a somewhat disturbing segment, where passersby were encourage to step inside the trailer to see assorted oddities of Nature, including a stuffed 2-headed animal. According to Caposella, the sideshow provides a metaphor for, among other things, the way we invite people into our lives to see how beautiful we are, but “underneath we are so flawed; we are circus freaks.”

Another segment introduces us to Christopher Magic Wonder, a magician who Capossela says “can hypnotize himself and a chicken at the same time.” When the film was over and Capossela played the piano for us, Magic Wonder appeared from the audience and performed some magic tricks. When he was finished, he lifted up his shirt to show “TA DA” tattooed large on his stomach.

Vinicio Capossela and Christopher Magic Wonder.

Capossela and Firriolo answered questions from the audience about the film, the music and their impressions of America. It was an evening of surprises as they gamely tried to explain what is ultimately unexplainable; how they blended images and music to tease the intellect and stir the emotions.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mandolin and Guitar Workshop in Tuscany with a Maestro…What Could Be Better?

Strum your mandolin or guitar amid the beautiful hills of Tuscany. Stay in a 15th century villa where every room evokes the Renaissance and every meal is a feast. John T. La Barbera, award winning acoustic guitarist, mandolinist, composer, arranger, author and performer will conduct this unique workshop. His special guests include Carlo Aonzo, one of the finest classical mandolinists in the world and Enrico Granafei, guitarist and jazz harmonica virtuoso.

This experience, offered from August 11-16, 2010, is designed for those who can read intermediate musical notation and chord diagrams. However, students with knowledge of tablature or who are at an intermediate playing level will be considered. Whether you are seeking a professional music career or play for your own personal development, this is an outstanding opportunity.

The Workshop
This is a rare opportunity to improve your technique, collaborate with other musicians and learn from a virtuoso. La Barbera, award winning acoustic guitarist, mandolinist, composer, arranger, author and performer will offer Master Classes, 3 one-hour private lessons, lectures and participation in duos, trios and quartets. This includes a special one-day Master Class and performance on August 13 with Carlo Aonzo.

This course provides instruction in mandolin and guitar and focuses on improving performance skills and ensemble playing. Emphasis is placed on, but not limited
to, the Italian repertoire for mandolin, solo guitar and chitarra battente, both from the classical and traditional folk music styles of Southern Italy, as well as the Brazilian repertoire of Chorinho, Bossa and Samba music for mandolin and guitar. Music will be drawn from Medieval (Italian 13th century dances, and troubadour songs), Renaissance (lute songs, music from the Italian Commedia dell”Arte, including the Neapolitan 16th century Villanella all Napoletana), Baroque and Classical literature (Giuliani, Carulli and Carcassi), the literature from Traditional Southern Italian Mandolin and Fiddle Tunes book and Brazilian chorinho music for mandolin and guitar.

John T. La Barbera
La Barbera is the author of the first and foremost mandolin book dedicated to the traditional music from Southern Italy, Traditional Southern Italian Mandolin and Fiddle Tunes, Mel Bay Publishing. He composed film scores for Children of Fate, (1992) (Academy Award Nominated feature documentary), Sacco and Vanzetti (2008), Pane Amaro (2008), What's up Scarlet (2005), Neapolitan Heart -Cuore Napolitano (2000), La Festa (1996) and Tarantella (1994).

In theater, he has served as composer, arranger and musical director for several off-Broadway productions including Souls of Naples (Theater for a New Audience) starring John Turturro; Kaos, (New York Theater Workshop) directed by choreographer Marta Clarke. He composed several fully staged folk operas including Stabat Mater, Donna di Paradiso, The Voyage of the Black Madonna and The Dance of the Ancient Spider. He received several composing awards and commissions from The Jerome Foundation, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The Martin Gruss Foundation, The New York State Council on the Arts, Meet the Composer, ASCAP and was a finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition. Awarded for his extraordinary role in the transmission and translation of Italian oral traditions from The Italian Oral History Institute, La Barbera is recognized as one of the first transcribers of Southern Italian folk music in America.

His published works also include: The Marimbaba Suite for percussion quartet and Danza del Fuego for solo marimba, both published with Bachovich Music Publications, 2009 and has contributed a chapter in Oral History, Oral Culture, and Italian Americans, Palgrave-MacMillan. 2009.

He holds a B.M. from the Hartt School of Music (Univ.of Hartford), in addition to graduate courses at William Paterson University in NJ, ethnomusicology at Hunter College in NYC, Villa Schifanoia (Rosary College), in Florence, Italy, and at the Academia Chigiana in Siena, the film music seminar with film composer, Ennio Morricone.

He currently teaches at the Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ and the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, in Katonah, N.Y. He has taught at The Julius Hartt School of Music (University of Hartford), The Guitar Study Center of the New School in N.Y., Sessione Sienese in Siena, Italy, SASI in Bratislava, Slovakia and SESC in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

His music has been recorded on Shanachie records, Meadowlark, Rounder Records, Lyrichord Disks, Ellipsis Arts, and Bribie records.

The Villa
The workshop is held at La Chiara di Prumiano, six centuries old in the Chianti region of Tuscany, near Siena. Even if you can’t translate the villa’s website, prumiano.it, from Italian, I recommend looking at the photographs. I have stayed at this villa, and it is wonderful! Spacious and decorated with tile floors and dark, polished wood, I entered the villa and felt the pressures of my regular life slide off my shoulders. Each bedroom, whether single, double or triple, has modern bathrooms and is beautifully appointed.

The food at Prumiano can only be described as spectacular. Breakfasts are continental and completely satisfying (which is not true everywhere you go). Lunches and dinners are feasts that the kitchen staff creates from fresh ingredients grown on the villa property. They pride themselves on serving cuisine that is beneficial to the body and mind and tastes like heaven. These wonderful meals are eaten at long tables under a large, vine-covered pergola on the patio.

The Palio and Other Activites
Prumiano offers a swimming pool and stables on the grounds. Imagine horseback riding in the Tuscan hills….I’ve done it, and it’s unforgettable. The villa also offers shiatsu and ayurvedic massage. In addition, you’ll find spas, mudbaths and a lake nearby.

You may want to consider extending your stay in the Siena area to attend Il Palio, the world famous traditional medieval pageant and horse race. The event takes place from August 13th-16th in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. Ten of Siena's neighborhoods (contrade) compete to win this important contest. Many traditions, ceremonies and rituals take place up until the final race on the evening of the 16th. After the race is run and the winner is crowned, the festas begin, wine flows, food abounds and dancing and merriment continue into the wee hours. As a matter of fact, since each contrada has its own fountain, the winning contrada fills its fountain with free wine for everyone all night long. If you are thinking of adding this event to your itinerary, be advised that places to stay fill up quickly.

Learn more about this special workshop, including prices and registration by downloading this brochure. Just click on the orange Menu button and select Download Doc. Be sure to download both pages:

Mandolin Workshop Tuscany 2010 page 1 -

Mandolin Workshop Tuscany, 2010 page 2 -

Monday, March 1, 2010

Francine Segan at the New York Times Travel Show

On Sunday, February 28, author and food historian Francine Segan arrived at the New York Times Travel Show fresh from her appearance on NBC’s Today Show just an hour before. Having recently been named U.S. spokesperson for the Italian Dessert Industry (Associazione Industrie Dolciarie Italiane (AIDI), Segan shared some of her expertise with us, and we were impressed!

Here are just some of the highlights from her 15 minute talk:

Panforte, the popular, star-shaped cake means 'strong bread'. It was created by pharmacists in Rome specifically to increase libido.

Italy’s Piedmont region is the center for Italian chocolate. Espresso is usually served with a square of chocolate wrapped in paper. For years Francine thought it was sugar and left it alone, until someone let her know it was chocolate!

Gianduotti candies were made by the Caffarel company, wrapped in paper and tossed to party goers at Carnevale to introduce it to the public in the 1800’s. A chocolate shortage during the Napoleonic Wars forced Caffarel to get creative and combine equal parts chocolate and hazelnut into this dreamy bite.

Vin Santo (sainted wine) got its name because as the story goes, when it’s drunk it saves lives.

Ms. Segan has distinguished herself through hundreds of television appearances on The Today Show, Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood, The Early Show, the Food Network, PBS, History and Discovery Channels. She also lectures extensively, including at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., the Virginia Fine Arts Museum and the American Museum of Natural History and the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.

You can enjoy two Essence of Italy interviews with Francine Segan, available as podcasts or written transcripts. Find the podcasts here:

Italy and Chocolate: An Affair to Remember
The Opera Lover’s Cookbook

Find the written transcripts here:

Italy and Chocolate: An Affair to Remember
The Opera Lover’s Cookbook

The AIDI includes market leaders in the Italian dessert industry and small artisan firms specializing in delectables such as cake, cookies, ice cream, chocolate and candy. They’ve just launched their website, dolceitalia.com, complete with recipes and information.