It would be difficult to imagine a more colourful scene. Vibrant yellow canopies set against a cloudless blue sky shaded market stalls laden with the jewel hues of citrus, olives, exotic green cauliflowers, a dizzying choice of amber honey and a rainbow of garden plants. The basil, mozzarella and tomato stripes of a gigantic Italian flag hung from a pale stone balcony high above Monopoli’s old port. Tanned families in their Sunday best lined the harbour walls, shuffling to allow passage of marching drummers, clad jester-fashion with one white leg and one black leg apiece, just like their accomplices bringing up the rear with green and white flags flying from poles that could double as ships’ masts. Once arrived at the slipway, the quintet showed off their remarkable upper-body muscle-power in a display of flag-waving-meets-gymnastics-meets-caber-tossing and it was a relief that nobody had an eye out or a broken limb.
But my main focus wasn’t on land-based activities. At the end of a week of sea-themed music-making with Run By Singers, it was all about to kick off on the water. Each Sunday in October, this Puglian town celebrates with a festival known as Gozzovigliando, and today was the day for the palio, a regatta between the little blue fishing boats, the gozzi. For a bunch of holiday chums who’d spent many an hour indulging in life’s gastronomic pleasures, and even singing about exactly that in Gastoldi’s Il piacere, it seemed a happy coincidence that Gozzovigliando, although clearly stemming from the name of the vessel, translated as ‘guzzling’. Fair enough.
As it turned out, the build-up to the palio was a far lengthier process than the main event. After lots of hanging about in the general hubbub, the beginnings of a starting line-up emerged. Pairs of oarsmen in matching t-shirts sponsored by local businesses – including Komera, the scene of our first group Run By Singers meal a week earlier – began to paddle out, gondola-fashion but at either side of their tiny craft, into the broader waters of the harbour. The loudest cheer was reserved for the beaming contestant who was actually an oarswoman. A posse of umpires in motorboats fussed around as the seven gozzi took their time lining up between the starting buoys. Then finally, a loud hoot and they were off! Everyone yelled their encouragement as the boats launched away at a cracking pace, oars flailing under the monumental efforts of the rowers, who all kept to their feet despite the water becoming more turbulent with every stroke. Reaching the turning point, it was anybody’s race, but on the home stretch the field spread out as arms and backs surely tired – burning muscles under burning sun. There was a clear winner but each boat was applauded wildly as they crossed the line. Good-natured local rivalry at its best.
Shared endeavour rather than competition had been the tone of our singing week, but there’d been an equal quest for colour in our musical interpretation. Musical Director David Ogden was keen to encourage the style demanded of our Italian repertoire by paying particular attention to open vowel sounds and breathing on the correct vowel shape. Lightness of touch was to be coupled with clear diction, helped by handy warm-up routines employing Italian numbers up and down the scale. Other suitable vocabulary crept in, including suggestions from the floor such as cappuccino, Lamborghini, limoncello… We were variously exhorted to be epic but not to wallow, and to communicate by shaping the music into lapping waves, especially in Greig’s Ave Maris Stella. (Note to self: don’t attempt a reprise of this while swimming unless you want a mouthful of seawater.)
Particularly poignant for me was Parry’s Crossing the Bar, with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s metaphor ‘And may there be no sadness of farewell, When I embark…’ chiming with some long-expected sad news received on the morning of concert day. Being able to hold it together for our uplifting performance in Monopoli Cathedral I attribute to the invaluable emotional support of fellow singers and the sheer power of song and friendship. Grazie tutti!