Siena on a sunny Sunday


There’s a Conservatory of Music in Siena, along with all the better-known things like Duomos and Palazzos.  The young men studying my performance with critical generosity were, I discovered when I stopped, its students and alumni.

If I’d known, perhaps I would have been more self-conscious.  And then I would have forgotten the notes.  You mustn’t, I’ve learned, be too self-conscious playing on the street.  You need to be alert to the passing audience, to engage with it, to encourage it.

When a shy person surreptitiously films from the side, not sure if it’s allowed, or if it’s chargeable, you need to direct the performance towards them, and make sure they know you don’t mind.

When a child, who’s probably never seen a cello before, wants to detain its parents, you give it every encouragement.  If possible you get it to dance.

And when a slightly frazzled teacher stops his young charges, and begins –  standing right in front of you – to lecture them, you create a dramatic ending that causes them to interrupt him with spirited applause.

And when an ambulance comes wailing up the narrow pedestrian street, you quickly back against the wall and watch it drive over your artfully placed CDs.  (Actually, it was only the very edge of one, and no damage was done; let’s not exaggerate.)

Siena, like San Gimignano yesterday, was a happy place to play.  I chose a narrow street, at the entrance to a square.  So there’s a lot of foot traffic, and it’s moving, but not too quickly.  

A narrow street makes for a good acoustic (as the Conservatory students noted).  So those coming up the street are alerted to your presence, with plenty of time to get their purses out if they want to.  And they generously detain and encourage those coming down from the square.

I shouldn’t really be thinking about the money, of course.  I should be playing just because this is what I want to do, and this is where I want to do it.  But it’s hard not to look for validation.  When a hundred people go by with their noses in their phones, it’s discouraging.  And when you get this much notice, and you hear the frequent chink of coins, I admit it makes me feel good.

And what do people most want to hear?  I wouldn’t have guessed it, but Bach.  A lot of people identify it, and nod the kind of nod that lets you know they know.  And when they don’t identify it, it still goes down well.

I think there must be something about Bach that makes people think it’s the right response to these old stones and bricks.

So I played lots of Bach.  And I did well again today, monetarily speaking.  So I treated myself to a proper Sunday lunch, counting out the bill in heavy coinage.

In the afternoon the roads were hot – very hot.  The forecast said 35, but when I reached San Quirico d’Orcia, an ancient fortified town on the top of a steep hill, everyone said it had definitely been 40 today.

When I say everyone, I mean the staff of the Capitano Hotel, which seems to own most of the town.  The explanation of which buildings you have to go to for which functions of the hotel takes quite a while – when all I want to do is sit down with a cup of tea.

But now I’ve had my cups of tea, and I’m sitting in a garden, surrounded by huge terracotta pots of Rosemary, with shady walks covered in Wisteria and vines and olives, the whole thing backed by these characteristically needle-shaped cypresses, with enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay, and to point out that it’s still well over 30 degrees at nearly 8 o’clock, and definitely time therefore to go in search of some dinner…

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