Founded in Florence in 1933, the annual Maggio Musicale Fiorentino is Italy's oldest music festival. Since 1985 its music director has been Zubin Mehta, who devised a spectacular coup for the opening of the fifty-eighth MMF, as the Festival is commonly known. On 1 May 1995 the Berliner Philharmoniker gave their traditional European Concert under his direction in the magnificent setting of the Sala dei Cinquecento in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.
The concert began with Beethoven’s majestic Fidelio Overture, followed by Boris Blacher’s Variations on Paganini’s Twenty-Fourth Caprice, a musical choice inspired by the orchestra’s visit to Italy. According to Blacher himself, the work does not constitute “a set of variations in the classical sense but sixteen ways of reflecting on the theme”. The fourteen-year-old American violinist Sarah Chang then demonstrated what Paganini sounds like in the original, effortlessly surmounting the technical demands of the opening movement of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto. She had made her Berliner Philharmoniker debut with this piece in January 1994, also under Mehta’s direction, instantly captivating the press: “Here was no concertare, no competition or clash between rival contestants,” wrote the critic of Die Zeit. “Instead, an individual presented listeners with all that needed to be communicated, helped by an ensemble that supported and underpinned the soloist, adding accents, preparing the emotions, reinforcing feelings and confirming the occasion’s success.”
The concert ended with the razor-sharp rhythms and sounds of Petrushka, the ballet that Stravinsky wrote in 1911 for Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes. As Stravinsky later explained, Petrushka is “the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries”. Here, too, he strives in vain to win the favours of the beautiful ballerina. “In composing the music,” the composer explained, “I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts.” In Florence it all ended well, and Mehta and the orchestra thanked the audience for their warm applause by performing Dvořák’s Eighth Slavonic Dance by way of an encore.