In 2010, Italy was immersed in a deep arts funding crisis that arrived swiftly on the heels of a paralyzing economic impasse. Drastic measures were taken that summer by the Italian Parliament, its government still under the culture-allergic Silvio Berlusconi, which passed the Decreto Bondi to tighten opera house self-governance and prune finances. In the cusp, Eurostat reported that Italy spent 0.6 percent of GDP on recreation, culture and religion in 2011, down from 0.9 percent in 2009. As state arts funding shrank, cultural and arts organizations that were unable to charm private donors had been driven into the red.
In the midst of the arts funding slash-and-burn, a young Frenchman, Olivier Lexa, bowed a center devoted to Venetian baroque music along the brackish La Serenissima canals. Against the odds, would his audacious cultural gamble pay off?
Venetian baroque music’s golden era produced earnest cantatas and regal oratorios inked by dexterous composers such as Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Cavalli, Lotti and Caldara from the early 17th to mid-18th century.
Measured against monolith Italian opera houses boasting blockbuster dramas of Verdi, Wagner and Mozart, baroque’s considered a fickle, niche classical music slice that has fallen in and out of popularity in its four-century existence. Even grizzlier, its overarching classicism dissuades lucrative record deals – Baroque vocal specialists and soloists who’ve crossed into mainstream can be counted on one hand.
But as classical music organizations and festivals tighten belts, baroque’s restrained, economical parameters guarantee prim, moveable feasts. Baroqueembracing maestri have created a cult of historically-accurate performances that source authentic, period instruments with tonal and pitch purity differing from their modern-engineered orchestral counterparts. On the other side of the orchestra pit, savvy audiences – jaded from interminable Trovatores, Don Giovannis and Flying Dutchmens – have been charmed by the intimate, authentic measures of early music.
Popularity upticks aside, how do you promote a nuanced, niche art form, especially in a city that’s already laid claim to numerous tourist exports? Ask Lexa, the founder and artistic director of The Venetian Centre for Baroque Music, who established it in 2010 in homage to his beloved, adopted city and its evocative musical heritage.
“The two greatest Venetian inventions in the arts are, in my opinion, the creation of the public opera in 1637 and the foundation of the Venice Biennale in 1895 – two significant chapters in the history of humankind,” he says. “Anytime someone buys a ticket to a music concert of any kind, no matter where it is, they should know that it all started with opera in the City of the Doges. This is the incredible story that was virtually untold in Venice before the coming of The Venetian Centre for Baroque Music.” Lexa’s admiration of Venice’s musical legacy comes from a watertight music background – a Masters in Music Management from Paris-Sorbonne University and assorted music degrees from Provence Aix-Marseilles, Toulon, and the Paris Conservatory – which laid the foundation for subsequent art and culture directorships. In 1999, he co-created and directed Les Folies Françoises, and later collaborated with Conversations Essentielles, an artistic think-tank that bridges cultural frameworks through concerts and roundtables in Paris and New York. At The Juilliard School, he headed a ‘Venetian Music in NYC’ initiative and then moved to Paris for eight years before assuming the role of chief executive for Palazzetto Bru Zane – Centre de Musique Romantique Française.
Eventually, his love of Venice’s early music heritage pointed his compass back to La Serenissima, with an ambitious plan to establish a local center to promote and preserve native baroque music. “I am an entrepreneur by definition,” he said. “I enjoy conceiving and developing a project, and then watching it take off.” In the run-up to the center’s inauguration, he spent one year canvassing sponsors before approaching Gilles Etrillard, chairman of the French LFPI asset management group, who showed an immediate interest in the project and now sits as the Venetian Centre for Baroque Music board chairman and manages the center’s sponsorships and partnerships.
“Finally, we have new patrons and sponsors, also in Switzerland, where private entities took notice of the risks we’ve taken, the work we’ve done in four years and the exciting results,” says Lexa on recent funding coupes and private fundraising strides. “A new economic model for culture is on the rise in Italy – private financing. We encourage its development.”Lexa’s initiative is on-trend – many of Italy’s longstanding summer music festivals celebrate their native sons on native lands, such as the Rossini Opera Festival held in its maestro’s Pesaro birthplace and The Puccini Festival thrown on the fringe of its maestro’s Lucca birth town in Torre del Lago.
For Lexa, a Venice-based center was integral to create an authentic environment, to build an enduring framework and to underline the luminous historical context for Venetian baroque.
Mainly, The Venetian Centre for Baroque Music acts as a clearinghouse to promote and support the early music of the Venetian baroque maestri. Additionally, it runs a music academy for young artists. Scientific research is a mainstay, achieved through archival catalogue projects crowned by exclusive recordings. It also organizes international colloquiums, the latest to be held in March, ‘Venetians in Paris’, as a roundtable between industry-wide music scholars.
Its most ambitious outreach is an annual Monteverdi Vivaldi Festival, named for the Venetian baroque school’s most enduring composers – Claudio Monteverdi and Antonio Vivaldi respectively – and dips into programming, sacred and profane, from ubiquitous to obscure.
Entering its fourth year, Lexa’s knack for artistic programming has boosted ticket sales. The 2014 edition, which opens on July 5 and runs through the early fall, showcases baroque trailblazers such as American mezzo Vivica Genaux, Italian pianist Rinaldo Alessandrini, French ensemble Les Arts Florissants and Spanish viol player Jordi Savall (also The Centre’s recently-appointed chairman) in programming that brims with Cavalli, Monteverdi, Ferrari and Händel, among others. “Every concert is sold out, and we have a regular following,” says Lexa. “Our image had engendered a change in the way people perceive baroque music in Venice, and is no longer limited to mediocre Vivaldi concerts for tourists. Music and opera lovers have ceased to consider Monteverdi and Cavalli as second- rate composers. Their rightful place is alongside Rossini and Verdi – like everywhere else in the world.”
Benefactors include UNESCO, Istituto Veneto, Teatro La Fenice and Palazzo Contarini Polignac, among others. The advisory honorary board under Savall is rounded out by opera luminaries such as Italian mezzo-soprano (and Baroque fetishist) Cecilia Bartoli. Venues monopolize the romantic, luxurious, historic palazzos that dot the Queen of the Adriatic’s canals – notably, The Prada Foundation’s Ca’ Corner della Regina; Palazzo Grassi under the auspices of The François Pinault Foundation; and Teatro La Fenice.
Since the center’s establishment, Lexa’s given back to his city of adoption in more ways than one. In June 2011, he published ‘Venise, L’Eveil du Baroque’, or, ‘Venice, the Dawn of Baroque’, a historical account of the city’s role in establishing and fostering baroque music, and its gradual development into a modern, often-commercialized art form. He’s recently signed-on with Actes Sud for three additional books on Venetian baroque music, including a biography of Francesco Cavalli, which is scheduled to be released later this year, and a second edition of ‘Venise, L’Eveil du Baroque’ slated for 2015.
Although his mission is to preserve unadulterated early music and present it in its purest forms, he understands that there’s a balance between accessibility and exclusivity. Historically, early music sustained entrepreneurial nudges from impresarios such as Benedetto Ferrari of Rome, who seeded its languid measures in the city’s earliest opera house, Teatro San Cassiano.
It’s in this same neighborhood, rich in cultural resonance, where Lexa’s made his home. His skyscraper flat (relative to Venice’s low-lying palazzo roofs, of course) is in Palazzo Da Mosto – the original residence of the Italian architect and BBC film-maker Francesco da Mosto – from where he throws sparkling soirées for well-heeled guests of all cultural persuasions.
In his rare off time, he frequents The Venice Yacht Club, and as the newlyappointed vice president of the Circolo San Marco – a club spearheaded by François Giraudet, chief banking executive and project manager for Le Defi Français, notable for bringing the America’s Cup to Venice – he advocates the city’s cultural currency.
Every worthy cause needs an advocate, and with Lexa throwing his weight behind Venice baroque, early music once again has been rotated to the top of La Serenissima’s greatest exports. Take that, arts funding cuts!
Article by Allison Zurfluh
Photographers: Laure Jacquemin, Mattea De Fina, Allison Zurfluh