A few days before the season opening at the Pittsburgh Symphony, we held the first meeting of our Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Book Club at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland.
First, a few words about the book club. Over the summer, we invited bookworms in the orchestra to nominate books that relate to the programs and themes of our 2009-2010 season. The first book in the series, Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick, was selected by contrabassoonist Jim Rodgers to go with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the opening weekend’s program. You can check out the other book selections here. We will be using this space to continue the discussion – so, do pick up a copy of the next book and join the conversation!
Back to Vivaldi’s Virgins and the first meeting. If you’re not familiar with the novel, it is set in seventeenth century-Venice and centers on the story of Anna Maria dal Violin. Anna Maria is an orphan (or, so we think!) and among the most talented of the figlie di coro, the young musicians raised at the famed orphanage Ospedale della Pieta. Her desperate search for her roots and passion for music is intertwined with the story of Vivaldi, who was the violin master there and composed extensively for the young musicians of the Pieta. We follow the story through Anna Maria’s eyes and the letters she writes to her mother, without really knowing if she reads them, or, if she exists at all.
The exciting thing about group discussions for me is to hear different perspectives, as words in a book come alive and resonate with our individual lives and experiences. It seems that there are certain themes, passages or images that capture us (and no one else) in very special ways. Then and there, we enter into a private conversation with the book (or, for that matter, any work of art), and “new vistas are opened,” as the great Maxine Greene would say. It was such a treat to hear everyone else’s thoughts and the things we each noticed. We managed to keep the conversation without giving away the identity of Anna Maria’s mother – the central mystery of the book. I am guessing those of us who hadn’t quite finished the book were highly encouraged to do so!
I, personally, was drawn into Quick’s vivid portrayal of the cloistered life of the foundlings of the Pieta and their devotion to music. I found echoes of their lives in my own experience at a boarding high school for the arts back in Istanbul. Our yearning for master teachers’ attention, strong camaraderie and occasional jealousies and even escapades into colorful city nights came back from where they were buried in my mind for more than ten years. As a musician, Jim Rodgers almost literally felt Anna Maria’s pain at being barred from playing the violin and banished to the lower quarters where she was forced to stir boiling soap in a large cauldron! Others in the group were drawn to the issues faced by women as artists at the time, which the author dwells on at length.
Well, I think I saved the best part to the last: Thanks to technology, Barbara Quick, the author herself, happily joined in the conversation from her home in the Wine Country. Jim (the contrabassoonist, of course) was well-prepared and took the opportunity to advocate for a role for his instrument in future novels. Along with the rest of us, Barbara was treated to a wonderful excerpt from Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in A minor, RV 498 over the phone.
Now, not knowing the inspiration behind a particular scene certainly does not take away from my enjoyment of a book, yet hearing about what goes into writing a historical novel and especially Barbara’s colorful experiences in Venice as she researched for the book was in itself a revelation.
One of the poignant moments of the discussion was to hear Barbara talk of the saving grace of writing in her life. Challenges of a childhood in a split home seemed to seep into her novel. Asked about “la Befana,” a palpably evil character, Barbara explained: “Suffering can make people sour,” but added that optimism, imagination and the power of art could “save” a person. Writing had done that for her.
That, I think, is one of the key things that draw us to the arts. So, here, I invite you to think of your experiences – a favorite piece of music, a book you keep returning to, or perhaps writing a little here and there. Think of those special moments, sitting in the audience, looking at an inspiring painting and reflect on the ways it’s touched you, and share with us if you feel like it.
Looking forward to meeting more music lovers and stirring discussions in the upcoming sessions!