Thomas Lawrence Toscano
Updated: Jul 8, 2019
On the morning of 9/11 I, like so many others in NYC was an eye witness to this violently destructive event. I had been forewarned in a general way, not a specific way, of this cataclysm but that is another story which I will tell sometime in the future. Out of this incredible reality fraught with ancient messages etc. came a work that very much changed my life. Messaggio e Domanda (Message and Question) is the work that my 9/11/ experience generated. Comprised of headlines from the eruptions of Etna reporting on the eminent destruction of the Rifugio Sapienza, transitioning to the statement "Why are we deaf?, Why don't we care? which brings an in the moment power to the work and continues in both English and Sicilian. It then moving into the experience of a fireman who has perished and finds himself alone on the other side as he seeks his comrades, which then through a complex mosaic of traditional American tunes brings us to the poem Slow Winds To The Southeast and the last line - You cannot put people after profit forever, Did you understand yet? I apologize for not continuing but my work is not the subject, this is about trusting yourself, the utter joy of life, and to allow for your creative prowess, it's quite wiser than you think.
So, on with the story. Messaggio and Domanda was premiered on May 29th, 2003. It won't surprise any of you to hear that it was a deeply defining moment in my life on many levels. Of course, artistically, but there was much, much more, for I had been alone in my heart culturally speaking. You see, as I've said in a previous post I was raised by my Sicilian family surrounded by the language, traditions and stories. The stories were the purview my grandfather Gaetano Toscano, who regailed me with story after story about Màscali, his home town in Sicilia, the volcano the sea etc. I had always wanted to go to Sicily, because, deep inside I considered myself to be, first and foremost Sicilian, so deep was my connection to that ancient culture. Yet, there was no real outlet for me once I left home, my grandparents passed (the last one passing in '94). Further, I have never been a tourist, 98% of the time my travels were because of, or connected to performing in one way or another. I did not want to go to Sicily as a tourist or as a descendant seeking roots, but, as an artist. With this organic opportunity to premiere my work in Catania all my dreams came true.
After the world premiere and all the wonderful events both leading up and concluding it, I was picked up on a Saturday morning by my cousin Nello Ventura and spirited through the countryside 59 Kilometers (37miles) through the mountains. We arrived and within one or two minutes I found myself in the main Piazza above.
Here it was the ancestral home of both of my mother's parents well over 2000 years old. Bidis, being it's original name, it developed into Vizzini with the shifts of power and civilizations which created this multi layered city with the most astounding historic architectures.
For twelve dreamlike hours I was taken from place to place, enjoying many dishes I grew up with and swimming in the language I had heard throughout 40 odd years of my life. The historic reality of the town was introduced to me by the town Architect another cousin, Giuseppe Ventura, who took me on a walking tour depicting the layers of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Saracen, Spanish which vibrates through the entire mountain top. He also brought me to the old Saracen fort upon the hill and the two ancient pine trees.
The twelve hours passed in fairy time and eventually I found myself back in Catania for my departure the following day. I departed with more emotions than I could possibly explain here and now. WIthin the allotted time I found myself on the plane and we circled the great reality of that part of the world, the active volcano, Mt. Etna. As I we circled the volcano I had one persistent thought. "I wish I could do something to help Vizzini, the town needs funds, it's population has decreased over the years. I'd love to start a festival, and yet, I know that would mean talking to politicians and we all know I have absolutely no talent in that!" So, with this thought running through me on a tape loop I let it go of the idea and stopped.
Eleven months later, I arrived in Catania for the second time. I was picked up by the secretary of the Camerata Polifonica Siciliana, which I had been invited to conduct and brought to the same apartment that had housed me on my first venture. I settled in very quickly and walked down the ancient Via Etnea all the way down the hill to the Adriatic Sea. Slightly before that wonderful sea you'll find the Catania Opera House, which is where I waited. Soon Riccardo Insolia, professor at the Istituto Vicenzo Bellini, a wonderful cultural institution which acts as a conservatory for high school and college students. We hugged and laughed and as we waited for his brother Antonio and sister-in-law to arrive. Within minutes his phone rang, he answered it and after a few words, he handed it to me. I answered the phone puzzled beyond belief and said hello. It was the mayor of Vizzini - he explained to me that the concert I had come there to conduct was going to be transferred from Catania to Vizzini. (I was shocked) He told me that he had found out about me from one of my relatives and set out to make sure that I would hold my concert in Vizzini. I was thrilled of course and very surprised when he said to me " ...would you come to see my in a few days? I will send my driver and bring you to Piazza Umberto so that we can have a meeting. " I agreed and on the proscribed day I found myself there, in the piazza shaking hands and the strolling down the street to one of the towns pastry shoppes. We walked in, sat down at a long table in the back room conversing while espresso, cannoli and other Sicilian delicacies were brought to our table. We ate and drank with great satisfaction and then the mayor, Vito Cortese, who was sitting in front of me asked me a question. "We wanted to have you meet with us to ask you if you had any interest in working with us to form a music festival in our town"? I smiled, felt a deep and subtle energy fill me and said to him - "funny you should ask!"
A year and a handful of months later the Manfestazione Verghiana was opened by a wonderful open air concert in the very Piazza Umberto I the heart of Vizzini.
The mayor, Vito Cortese, can be seen sitting to the right of the man with the red shirt. While Philip and my other dear friend Giovanni Sollima gave a breath taking performance I made my way through the crowd and structures taking many, many pictures.
After Philip's solo performances, Giovanni joined him for some joint performances of works that Philip had written and others.
Then, Giovanni Sollima gave another of his spectacular performances bringing to the ancient town shrouded in darkness except for our lighting, a brilliant performance.
The audience was wildly enthusiastic and our wonderful festival, that had appeared in my being on that flight as a way to help my new home town, began to flourish. Initially, I had denied the possibility, shutting off any thought of approaching politicians, officials or even musicians. Eleven months later I arrived to conduct that O. P. Siciliana and was surprised by a phone call, even more surprised by the meeting, once again occurring as if I was in a film.
It was a glorious experience which I will speak more of in the future and for now I'd like to leave it here.
Miracles is a word that I use very often, but, never lightly. I'm always blessed by events that others doubt. Blessed time and again by serendipitous events. I have learned that there is more to us than I had ever imagined. I have learned over a very bumpy road to let go and trust. We will speak much more about this - but for the moment I will leave you with this. TRUST YOUR SELF, you will be very surprised at the outcome. Thank you for sharing this with me. Thomas