Summer in Siena

by Guest Blogger

A resident of Cabot House, Alan Toda-Ambaras '13 received an Artist Development Fellowship to take cello master classes taught by David Geringas this past summer at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy. A History of Art and Architecture concentrator enrolled in the Harvard-NEC Dual Degree Program, Toda-Ambaras has won numerous competitions and participated in performances here and abroad, including a performance with Yo-Yo Ma and members of the Silk Road Ensemble at Harvard in 2009. He plans to become a professional cellist with a career as both a soloist and a chamber musician. His report about his time in Italy follows.

This summer, I was in Siena, Italy taking cello master classes with David Geringas. I will describe the classes in great detail, of course, but first let me say something about Siena.

This was not my first time in Siena (I attended the same course during the summers of 2007 and 2008), but I found myself as inspired by its beauty, vitality and history as I have ever been. Centered around the ancient clock tower in the central square (the Piazza del Campo), Siena is comprised of numerous narrow, interconnected streets that wind up and down among multi-storied stone buildings of red, yellow and brown. Most of these buildings look at least 300 years old, if not older.

I took many walks exploring Siena's little streets and alleys, churches and squares.

During each walk, I felt I stepped back in time several hundred years. One day, my roommates and I visited the Duomo, or central cathedral, an immense Italian Gothic structure with a tower and dome, all built of alternating layers of white and dark-green marble. The front façade alone was remarkable, with its wealth of sculptural ornamentation. Inside, we found ourselves in the vast nave, where practically every square foot of wall and floor seemed to be covered in sculptures or images. It was a truly magnificent sight.

Seeing and living in Siena alone may not make any tangible contributions to my development as a cellist, but the memories I've made in the process will undoubtedly be a source of wonder for years, and I imagine that counts for something, especially for an artist.

The master classes were really constructive, for the most part. There were 15 students in the course; every day (except for Sundays), we went to a classroom in Siena's beautiful summer music school, Accademia Chigiana, and listened to four or five of them play for Geringas. During the first two days of lessons, Geringas seemed rather lackadaisical, often making only small comments here and there, sometimes letting the students play on and on without stopping them, even though he must have had things to say. Fortunately, the intensity picked up over the following days; for whatever reason, Geringas was now back to his usual self, teaching and demonstrating with the bluntness and vigor that I remembered so well from three years ago.

At my second lesson, I brought him Beethovenʼs Fourth Sonata for Piano and Cello. He immediately got down to business, telling me that there was much more color and energy to be found in the structure of the first movement, and that I shouldn't limit my expressivity with preconceived notions of style, whether it be German or French, Beethoven or Haydn. Unsurprisingly, his demonstrations on the cello were some of the most powerful, convincing examples of music-making I'd ever heard. A great lesson, all in all.

[Caption: Alan Toda-Ambaras is second from the left. ]