The last two days we were in Verona, 400 km to the north, for Simon and Jakob to compete in the Concorso Pianistico Internzionale “Remo Vinciguerra,” an international piano competition for young talents from age 5-14. Jakob’s teacher had encouraged him to play in the category of “quattro mani” (“four hands,” that is, two pianists on the same piano). However, a few weeks ago, Jakob’s planned partner quit piano, so Simon stepped in to play with him.

Brothers two years apart don’t always play nicely together. Practices — when they happened — sometimes involved as much taunting and tangling as tickling the ivories.  Nevertheless, they made progress, and after school on Thursday we set off for on the four-hour drive over the Apennines to the city of Romeo and Juliet at the foothills of the Alps.

Ponte Castelvecchio, Verona

Ponte Castelvecchio, Verona

Verona is a beautiful city — the whole place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site: pastel houses, the dark brown stone of fortification walls, and sharp lines of church spires leaned over the River Adige. But we didn’t have time to see the city until Friday morning. After checking in, we were off to find dinner and then attend a concert of a Romanian pianist named Adrian Theodor Vasilache.

‘Alla Bassona’

We were unable to find a pizzeria we had looked up, but stumbled across a restaurant “Alla Bassona,” run by a catering and events company, De Guidi. With a large garden, lawn, and play area, they were set up for weddings and other large celebrations. We were the only ones there. They specialized in meats roasted over a large fire visible from the dining area, so the boys helped themselves to a mixed grill, while Micah charmed the elderly mustachioed waiter, who was trying to joke with him in Italian, by finally declaring: “Sei buffo!” (“You’re silly!). At this, the man unleashed a mighty roar of a laugh, completely surprised at this little foreign boy.

It was on to the concert, and we arrived with several other families at the gate of the Villa Sagramoso Sacchetti, a noble estate set on an alluvial terrace. Several phone calls later, we were following a line of cars to the back gate of the property, rolling down a dirt track with torches on either side, lighting stately lines of grape vines, the road streaming toward the garden of a grand house.

Up the steps we went, and passed well-dressed guests (and a few kids who would be competing the next day) to find a row of seats. After some introductions, and thanks to the Viscount who had opened his doors for the event, Maestro Vasilache began his concert.

The concert-room at the villa, before it filled up

He was technically wonderful, and quietly economical in his motion. He did two pieces entirely with his left hand at astonishing speed, switching instantly between bass and treble.

Micah had fallen asleep by the end of the performance, laid out horizontally across all our laps. After the encores, we gathered him up and set off for a confusing drive home through the outskirts of Verona, as intricate a city to navigate as Perugia.

The arena

The arena

The next day we made for the center (Verona has substantial capacity for underground parking), and spent the morning exploring the nicely-restored Roman amphitheater (the “Arena”) and trying out the flavors of a gelateria founded in 1939.

The performance hall (salone)

Then we walked to the edifice where the boys would play in the afternoon, the Palazzo Verità Poeta, to try out the piano at the venue, as we waited for Jakob’s piano teacher, Elisabetta, to arrive. When we entered the salone, other contestants were practicing. Simon waited only about five seconds of listening to another young player before deciding to walk out, on two grounds: first, that the young man was so superior that he (Simon) would only embarrass himself, and second, because the player was executing the kind of complicated pieces that Simon would rather have been playing. We all tried talking to him (the young man at the piano was in a completely different category), and said that this was an opportunity to see how hard other kids worked, and to consider what might be required in practice time if they really wanted to excel. Eventually Simon agreed to play the pieces through. The grand piano was almost too powerful for the room; after the first performer, one of the judges would close the top in order to dampen the echo.

The ceiling of the performance hall

Lunch followed, and we returned to the salone. And waited. The 2:30 pm start time came and went, and the audience began to wonder why it was delayed (only soccer games seem to start promptly in Italy). Eventually, performers began to go to the front to practice one last time. Apparently there is a protocol. One is only supposed to play the first few lines of any piece, not the entire thing. As two girls barreled into the center of a song, the mother (or teacher) of another pair stood up and stopped them to let another set practice, and the girls sheepishly retired to their seats. More then 30 minutes later we were finally underway, with 8 pairs of players (Categoria ‘F’).

All the kids were great, blasting away through technically difficult pieces with flawless gusto. Everyone was supposed to play a common piece written by the organizer, Remo Vinciguerra, and then up to 8 minutes in total, but it wasn’t clear that this instruction was followed. Some played three, four, or five pieces. A 10-year-old girl and her 8-year-old brother played six. She was fearless, alternating between liquid drops of light tones and fierce fortissimo notes. The judges sat up, already having asked their ages, and delighted in their enthusiasm. When they lost their way through Le Marseillaise, the audience applauded them before the end, giving them a chance to stop. But they insisted on playing the whole thing over again! On their final piece, the young boy even hit the final note two octaves up with the heel of his foot, Jerry Lee Lewis style. Cheers and smiles all around. While most of the performers played very firmly and loudly, one pair of young ladies chose a quiet, delicate, and intricate approach, and sounded the most impressive.

Then the boys came up. Here’s the video. Yes, my lens is scratched, and it is jumpy because Micah was squirming in my lap.

They played their pieces as well as they ever had. They still need to learn the niceties; while the other performers bowed and smiled and presented themselves, the boys went up, said their pieces, played, and then just sat down afterwards, without acknowledging or thanking the judges. They were nervous, and didn’t think they had done so well. The jury was comprised of  Maestro Vasilache, Remo Vinciguerra, the founder of the competition (which, as he said in his introduction, was for students to experience, enjoy themselves, and do their best), an Argentinian maestro, the musical director of the contest, and two local piano teachers.

The next day we went to Marinello, to tour the Ferrari factory (details in another post); we had to schedule that weeks ago, so we were not around for the finale, when they would announce the places. To us, the event was over. As we were walking past red 458s, Californias, and F1s, I got a text from Jakob’s teacher. “Have you left yet?” she said. “Yes, we’re near Modena.” “Because some of the kids are invited to play at the closing concert at 5 pm.” It was 4:40 by then, and we were 90 minutes away. We were wondering why they were trying to contact us. We told her to pass along our regrets.

She responded: “I’ve just been informed that Jakob and Simon got second-place classification.”

Surprise and delight replaced disappointment and embarrassment. The car ride home was a breeze.