Classic Mornings

Royal Dreams


It’s like a fairy tale without a magical ending. Though maybe it depends on how you define “magical.”

It has a happy ending.  In short, you might say the hero doesn’t go to the ball, but has a ball imagining he does. And he feels right at home.

The story came to mind with the recent royal wedding in Britain. According to the Nielsen ratings, 29 million viewers were aware that they could “be there” even if they couldn’t be there. I did not attend electronically, though I did catch a few audio souvenirs during newscasts.

In the midst of all the coverage I was reminded of a late 19th, early 20th century organist and composer Adolfo Berio (1847-1942). He was the grandfather of the 20th century composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003), who is remembered for his experimental and electronic music.

More than a quarter of a century ago, the Labèque sisters, Katia and Marielle, recorded a few pieces by the elder Berio on a CD titled Encore! (Sony 48381). Luciano Berio wrote a little introduction about his grandfather in the accompanying booklet.  It turns out to be the only biographical information about Adolfo that’s out there. And the few lines he wrote have fueled my high-mileage imagination for decades.

Luciano Berio introduced Adolfo as his first harmony teacher and a “formidable organist,” who used to perform “exuberant Rossini overtures and boisterous operatic fantasies’ during the Offertory of the Mass. He lived in Oneglia, Italy for 95 years without ever leaving it. “This did not stop him from dedicating his waltzes, his polkas and mazurkas (for piano, four hands) to Austrian princesses and to Swedish queens.” Luciano went on to say that his grandfather went blind in later years. On his birthdays he and his cousin used to make Adolfo tearfully happy by performing those waltzes and mazurkas.

Every time I play the Labèques’ recording of Adolfo Berio’s waltz Maria Isabella, his mazurka La primavera or his polka, I picture the Oneglia organist performing for royalty in one of the world’s great cathedrals and holding audiences spellbound.  I’m convinced that he managed to do that while playing in his local church.

I sometimes have imagined myself at legendary concerts even when I was closer to the headphone jack of a CD player than a concert hall. But I have attended concerts with stellar moments. And I’ve made the most of those memories when I’ve wondered about concerts I haven’t attended.

Years ago I heard a live performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Camille Saint-Saëns. It featured the late French pianist Brigitte Engerer, who died in 2012.  She was touring with the Orchestre National du Capitol de Toulouse and conductor Michel Plasson. Not only did Engerer meet the challenge of the concerto’s flashy finale. She responded to the many ovations by returning to the keyboard to repeat the finale with the orchestra. It was just as dazzling the second time around!

May 13th marked the 150th anniversary of the first performance of that work. It’s hard for me to think of the concerto as anything less than spectacular. That wasn’t the case back in 1868. The story is told that it took just 17 days to write. But the composer/pianist admitted that he didn’t have time to rehearse before the first performance. And so the premiere was less than memorable.

Perhaps I attended the legendary performance of the concerto. I couldn’t have asked for more when it was over. And any performances of the work that I’ve heard since then never seemed to stack up to what I heard that evening. There is no recording of the concert, so I have to trust my memory.  And I do, indeed.

I’m open to the possibility that I’ll hear yet another performance of the concerto which will be the one to treasure over all the others.  In the meantime, I’m not letting go of my reminiscence.

Somewhere in between the musicians with royal dreams and listeners chasing after legendary performances, there’s quite a bit of musical magic in the air.  And as far as I can tell, there’s no end in sight.