Tuscan Sun Festival

High on an Italian hill, steep as Mount Victoria the Tuscan town of Cortona squats. Within its defensive Etruscan (pre Roman) high walls is the home for 25,000 people in an area the size of Eastbourne. Geology determines its character. Centuries-old worn granite paves the narrow twisting streets, and hewn into brick slabs it forms the homes and buildings. They have stood for centuries. The roofs are clay tiles, the loose ones precariously held down by rocks. Earthquakes are not unknown. In an unlikely tremor, we would probably stay put in our comfy $160 a night hotel room, rather than risk it outside,

Cortona sports two churches each as large as Wellington’s cathedral, and a dozen other distinctive places of worship. The most splendid is Basilica Di Santa Margherita attached to a monastery. Above its altar is a glass- faced red cushioned coffin where you can see the 13th century Saint Margherita. The patron of hobos, reformed prostitutes and the insane, serenely rests in a seemingly freshly dry cleaned Franciscan nun habit with her tiny mummified face, hands and feet showing. A 700 year old jolt to one’s sense of mortality.

However, it’s not churchy things I write of, for Cortona hosts a stunning annual summer Sun Music Festival. Its precincts are home to the magnificent Teatro Signorelli seating 420, whose tiered seating brings to mind the Muppet show’s virtual opera house. The town square is closed off to host open air concerts for 1,000 people. Character al fresco cafes and good eating abound. The galleries, museums, patios and gardens host the festivals many activities from acupuncture, ballet, cooking to wine tasting. Indeed, Cortona is a character town of substance.

A festival worth its salt needs a star. Last year here it was Robert Redford, this year Anthony Hopkins with the gorgeous diva Angela Gheorghiu. It was Cushla and my privilege, courtesy of a London based daughter and her friends to be part of this. We hobnobbed with a Belgian physician, opera cognoscente, New York Times columnists, German gay cultural buffs in immaculate white suits, a Brooker prize winner and a delightful English couple doing up a nearby farmhouse. Their son had a MBE for ten minutes field time for victorious England in the Rugby World Cup. Plus friendly inconsequential types like us.

A few vignettes, I trust, worth sharing.

Anthony Hopkins favorite film role was that of Bert Munro in The Fastest Indian. The actor we observed and briefly talked to was anything but Invercargill’s Bert. He was a serious art aficionado promoting his own work and that of a protege Aaron Tucker. His exhibition,”Masques”, included highly colourful impressionistic faces remembered from his vivid dreams. He only started painting a few years ago. For US$8,000 -US$60,000 you could have one of the Oscar winners creations brooding down from your sitting room wall. The great actor also composes. His haunting piano and orchestral piece August featured between a Haydn cello concerto and Beethoven Symphony.

Cushla, went to seminar by the up and coming opera star Danielle de Niese. She looks like a Vogue model. She told the story of how in a particular intimate aria she was directed to sing loudly. She sought Kiri Te Kanawa’s help. The great diva counseled “Oh darling…. sing softer, softer and softer… When they can’t hear you the orchestra will get the message”

An Australian viticulturist trained at Lincoln gave a top presentation comparing Australia vineyard practices with those of Italy. Australian and New Zealand winemakers produce fruity, quaffable wines enjoyable for their own sake – “Hi, come on over for a glass of wine” stuff. Italians, in particular make earthy wines that are to enhance food. The tastings brought the differences home. Indeed, the Italian beside us forwent trying the wines as there was no accompanying food. So, when serving a Montepulciano red to mates, accompany it with a good spaghetti or lasagna nosh.

New York Times music and theatre critic Matthew Gurewitsch hosted a flavoursome long lunch. He engagingly shared his experiences interviewing the doyens of music and theatre. What a life. The Met one night, two night’s later Covent Garden then a few days later Rome. His tape recorder broke once when interviewing a star, so his tools of trade became just a pencil and paper. This simplicity so impressed Daniel Day Lewis that he let his defences down. He went on to give a celebrated frank account of his acting methods and quirks.

Pen and paper too, were Brooker prize winner Barry Unsworth’s craft. His recent novel Land of Marvels from which he read a gripping passage sets the scene according to a reviewer “in an acute historical perspective of the land that became modern Iraq”. Barry told us he studied a historical setting and then proceeded on to invent a “pack of lies”. No word processor – just the flow of ink. Dava Sobel the science writer, notably of Harrison’s Clock that enabled longitude to be determined , does the same thing – studies for months, awaits the muse, gets up at 5am and in her nightie, lets the words flow. Oh, for such talent!

A Russian Nino Kotova played the 1760 Haydn cello concerto in C major. This work was not discovered until 1962 by a Prague librarian fossicking amongst fusty old music scores. The cello, for me, is the most sublime of instruments, but however striking the soloist, gorgeous the concert gown – a cello soloist can’t escape looking gorky. For Nina there were added distractions, not evident in her spirited playing. Recently she has had a son, and her husband Barrett Wissman has got into deep schtuck.

Wissman is the Tuscan Sun Festival’s founder and financier. He pleaded guilty a month or so ago to securities fraud, and kickbacks from a State pension fund. Newspapers report he has agreed to pay back $12 million over three years. Wissmen also runs a hedge fund and is no mean musician himself.

It would be sad day if this bubbly accessible festival of music, art, food, wine, lectures and readings, celebrating of the best things in life – high on a Tuscan hill – lost it’s fizz. Fingers crossed, the sins of the mastermind who founded it are not its undoing.