a Lifetime, September 15, 2011
A spectacular sunset silhouetting the dramatic New
York skyline seemed the twin of the one that had ignited the Twin Towers
in reflected glory many years ago and made Andrea’s Statue of Liberty
concert so memorable. But life can be cruel. This evening of September
15 in New York did not fulfill the brief promise of clear skies. Live at
Central Park was definitely not for the faint of heart. As long as fans
of Andrea live, there will be debates about the fateful call to go ahead
with this concert despite the ominous threats of scudding grey clouds
and the suddenly dropping temperature. It was impossible to choose
rightly—cancel and you would disappoint thousands who might not be
able to return for the rain date. Forge ahead, and the rain-soaked fans
would question for the rest of eternity whether they had completely lost
their sanity to sit in a sodden huddle of numbness to hear the voice of
just one man.
Without doubt there were disappointments September
15. Many were daunted by the fifteen-block line that had gradually
lengthened by the 7:00 pm starting time or were discouraged from even
the attempt at navigating, in the rapidly increasing darkness, the soggy
labyrinth of ponchos, tarps, blankets, towels, umbrellas, and bodies to
claim a damp patch of lawn from which to view the massive stage that
seemed discouragingly small from the farthest end of the Great Lawn. A
few tried faithfully to stick it out, but finally surrendered to the
elements at the intermission. One family sitting near us had traveled
all the way from California with their little girl who had an
incapacitating neuromuscular disease. From the moment she had first
discovered Andrea’s voice, it lit up her world. She requested the
beloved melodies every day and had memorized the Italian lyrics. The
journey to hear her beloved hero live for the first time was a dream
come true. But, bundled as she was, the frail little one was no match
for the elements and, tearfully, her mom had to gather belongings and
family to leave before her daughter could hear her very most favorite,
“Funiculì, funiculà.” A small corner of my heart was deeply
saddened that the weather’s misery had sapped some of the joy from
Andrea’s long anticipated dream, and ours. Why did this night have to
be the only one of the week in New York to be so thoroughly spoiled?
Nevertheless, it was an incredible tribute to
Andrea that the majority of the 60,000-plus crowd stood their ground—quietly
lifting their forbidden umbrellas each time the bands of rain surged
over them to cancel the promise of that splendid sunset that had briefly
burnished the skies at the moment when Andrea first took the stage.
Those who remained—young and old, from every part of the country and
world—would not be disappointed.
Early on, Andrea acknowledged the harsh reality of
the icy winds, and bone-chilling rains and warmly thanked his audience
for their support, calling us “heroes,” (which he spoke adorably
without the “h”). The classical part of the concert was incredibly
challenging. Beautifully buoyed by the peerless New York Philharmonic
conducted by Alan Gilbert, Andrea’s voice has clearly evolved and
matured. There is strength and experience deep within that he
emphatically communicates. His voice begins where mere words fail. By
the time he had finished the first two arias, “La donna è mobile”
and the compelling “Di quella pira,” I hardly minded that I could no
longer feel my feet and was barely indistinguishable from a drowned rat.
With prayerful emotion, he sang the haunting “Ave Maria” to the
accompaniment of a pelting rain. But when Andrea and his most perfect
partner Ana Maria Martinez joined for the powerfully mesmerizing
“Vicino a te,” all tribulations melted away—the numbing cold, the
rain dripping down my neck, the annoyances of the randomly milling crowd,
the rude shouts to “sit down”!
Andrea was clearly enthusiastic when he introduced
his first guest star Bryn Terfel, calling him a “big man with a big
talent” who also clearly has a big
heart and big affection for
our tenor. The stirring duet from The
Pearl Fishers shared by Bryn and AB was as good as it gets. The
affinity between them is a joy to behold, the blend of their voices,
matchless. Maybe it really was possible for the rain to stop.
At the start of the program’s second half, the
alchemy of Bryn’s indomitable personality somehow transformed the
discouraged mood of the crowd. This gentle giant had little patience for
our weather-wrought self-pity, however justified. With the wink of a
piercingly blue Welsh eye, he coaxed our smiles with the sheer
incongruity of hearing his richly booming operatic baritone interpret
the homespun melody of “Home on the Range”! He could not suppress
his innate need to communicate and enliven our flagging spirits with his
warm hospitality. Despite ourselves, we were soon raising our voices for
all we were worth with the splendor of the Westminster Choir in the
cheery and familiar chorus: “Home home on the range, where the deer
and the antelope play”!
Until now, “showman” is not a word I would have
readily associated with Andrea. But for this second half of the concert,
our tenor was as relaxed as he has ever
been and was forging, with ease, a new kind of bond with his audience.
He easily held his own with that inveterate upstager David Foster!
Cherished classic popular songs that have won our hearts over the course
of countless concerts followed one after the other: the velvet richness
of “Aranjuez,” the ebullient “Funiculí, funiculà,” “O sole
mio” with the stage bathed in a flood of golden lights that almost
managed to literally warm us up. We definitely basked in the symbolic
glow of Andrea’s warm embracing tones. The astonishingly nimble
musical interlude of Andrea Griminelli “Flight of the bumblebee” on
flute allowed Andrea to pay spoken tribute to the iconic Central Park
concert of his beloved maestro and compatriot, Luciano Pavarotti.
Griminelli had been onstage that night in 1993 to offer the same piece.
For a playful moment, Andrea hijacked Griminelli’s flute and feigned
helplessness to reproduce the masterful fingering we had just enjoyed.
“Amazing Grace,” one of the five new songs in English that Andrea had proudly
informed us at an earlier interview that he had studied hard to learn,
was simply AMAZING! Andrea’s personal credo seems perfectly captured
in the lyric: “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now
I see.” Indeed, his faith has always seemed to provide him with the
gift of a singular vision of life’s true meaning. It was a moment that
tugged at the heart. “More,” delivered in a big-band swinging
Sinatra mode and accompanied by the masterful trumpet tones of crowd
favorite Chris Botti, drew enthusiastic response, particularly the
drawn-out notes of tenor and trumpet that blended for the thrilling
denouement. When Andrea’s microphone failed him at the most dramatic
moment of “Nel blu dipintu di blu,” our tenor smoothly ad libbed
with an emphatic and comically endearing complaint, “It’s not
my fault! I don’t like them.
I would prefer to sing without them, but in this case it was necessary.”
In a gesture of humility that must have required personal fortitude,
Foster yielded his own mike to Andrea.
Finally, the moment had arrived for the evening’s
most anticipated guest appearances. With obvious relish, Foster
introduced the queen of the evening, Celine Dion, to the roaring
approval of the massive crowd. Though the reverently beautiful song
“The Prayer” is nearly always included by Andrea in his concerts, no
one can sing it as powerfully as these two glorious voices, who first
brought it to the world’s attention.
Last, but not least, came the iconic moment of
“New York, New York,” pairing Andrea with the master of the American
songbook, Tony Bennett. Tony jogged energetically onstage as the crowd
recognized and warmly acknowledged the unmistakable musical vamp with a
second tidal wave of applause. The two men, the strikingly tall Andrea
beside the shorter but definitely bigger-than-life Mr. Bennett, clasped
hands and raised them in an exuberant upward thrust. It was clearly a
highlight of an already highlight laden evening. Tony—a newly minted
85-year-old— looked fabulous. Andrea, in his elegant white evening
suit, looked fabulous. We were finally nearly dry, we were cheering
ourselves hoarse, we were in Central Park in the heart of the city that
never sleeps, feeling that maybe we really were at the “top of the
heap” with a guy from Tuscany who had definitely found his own way
“to be a part of it”—NEW YORK, NEW YORK!!! The stage before us was
suddenly lit up like Broadway and the smoothly blended harmony of the
triumphant final note was punctuated with a surprisingly cool “Yeah!”
from the lips of our suave master of the Italian lyric. The crowd, as
they say, went wild.
We were nearly at the evening’s end. After an
impromptu chorus of “happy Birthday” sung to Andrea from the
sophisticated Westminster Symphonic Choir, and the inevitable signature
tones of “Con te partirò,” which it seemed the tenor nearly forgot
to sing, people began to surrender to the rigors of the evening and were
on the verge of departing en masse. That is, until the majestic strains
of the legendary aria “Nessun dorma” stopped them in their tracks
and held the weather-beaten throng in thrall as the clarion tones of
Andrea’s powerful tenor rang out thrillingly across the Great Lawn’s
expanse. It was the only encore. It was all that was needed.
Finally, with the Great Lawn nearly emptied, a
brilliant orb of a moon hung at last in the clear expanse of onyx sky.
Now, for all time, this storied space would silently resound with the
echoed glory of Lajatico’s child, lately come to the fabled land where
dreams take root and grow beyond all imagining.
So many of our New York memories are woven from
Bocelli magic. As we made our way home, images of Andrea’s past
triumphs in this singular city unreeled in my mind—the concert at the
Statue of Liberty so soon after the loss of his father, the poignancy of
his “Ave Maria” quavering slightly with the bitter cold and
overwhelming emotion at Ground Zero, the unique excitement of multiple
sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden, a Valentine’s Day gift of
the XM interview and performance from the studio of Jazz at Lincoln
Center dramatically overlooking a snowy Central Park, the overwhelming
ovations at Avery Fisher Hall, Andrea’s voice resounding in the
storied space of Carnegie, and his first steps taken on the grand stage
of the Metropolitan Opera.
Somewhere on the road home between New York and
Washington, DC, a call from my brother jolted me from reveries with the
news that my 93-year-old mom, who was recovering from a broken hip, had
suffered a setback. Such news, the kind that changes everything,
abruptly banished all thoughts of the most recent New York triumph of
“the world’s most beloved tenor.” Life’s realities have a swift
way of putting things in their proper perspective. And yet, and yet…isn’t
it precisely the balm of Andrea’s voice that, for so many, somehow
nourishes the strength of heart to face a world of unexpected trials and
sometimes cruel turns? Somewhere, every day, he fills the heartbreaking
spaces of countless disappointments with the magic of his music, a magic
born precisely at that point where Andrea has met and mastered deep
challenges of his own.
A touching lyric from the concert rose in my mind—that
haunting melody, new to me, of Ennio Morricone from Once
Upon a Time in the West:
strength has made me strong,
your gift, Andrea, we are grateful.