Pietro DamianiBorn: October 9th, 1933, Manerbio (Italy)
In 1951, Giampieri convinced Pietro’s father to allow his son to finish his music studies at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan: “Giampieri, who worked at the Verdi Conservatory, told my dad that his son was really talented and that he, Giampieri, knew how to make a professional musician out of him. My father, easily impressed said: “Maestro, if you are convinced that is the right way for my son, I am on your side!” Already from my fifteenth, I had been studying for free after having won a scholarship in a music competition. Giampieri promised my father he would not have to pay a dime for the remainder of my studies in Milan either. Travelling back and forth from Manerbio, I continued working on my clarinet skills with Giampieri, whilst I studied the obligatory theoretical subjects with various professors, most notably composition with Luigi Manenti. During those two years at the Verdi Conservatory, I also took up playing the piano. The great thing about Giampieri was that he understood how to motivate me. He knew I liked playing football with my friends in Manerbio and he always said: “Go on and play football as much as you like”. Mind you, we are talking about the 1940s and 1950s now... compared to other music teachers of that age, Giampieri was remarkably laid-back and friendly.”
In 1953, at twenty years of age, Pietro Damiani passed the clarinet exam at the Verdi Conservatory with the maximum score. One year prior, he had joined the professional, state-funded Orchestra dei Pomeriggi Musicali in Milan as its first clarinettist. Performing with this symphonic orchestra once a week, Damiani stayed with the Pomeriggi Musicali for four years (1951-’55). In 1955, he was called up for his military service, thus being forced to give up his place in the orchestra. At the advice of a colleague, Damiani applied for a spot in the Italian Air Force Band in Rome. Being duly accepted, he was the first clarinet player in the band of conductor Alberto Di Miniello for three years (1955-’58) and embarked on several summer tours across Italy, “from Bolzano to Sicily”. Meanwhile, Damiani received another scholarship to continue his music studies at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome, where he studied composition, instrumentation for band and orchestra, and conducting with Antonio Delia, piano with Barbara Giuranna, whilst also taking additional courses in counterpoint, fugue, and even violin.
“My life in Rome was uncomplicatedly clear”, Damiani revels. “Usually, rehearsals with the Air Force Band took place in the morning hours only. This left me free to spend the remainder of the day on my music studies. I loved being given the opportunity to broaden my musical spectrum at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory. I carefully studied the standard work by Berlioz about orchestration. It was great that my teacher Antonio Delia also was the conductor of the Customs Brass Band. Whilst teaching me instrumentation and conducting, he allowed me to conduct his orchestra in rehearsals. I was even given a go as a conductor at the Italian Army Band as well! Meanwhile, Di Miniello, my conductor at the Air Forces, began employing my services as an arranger by asking me to write suitable transcriptions of music pieces, including ‘I pini di Roma’ and Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. As a result, I arranged much of the repertoire of a band I played in myself. This was a valuable part of my learning curve.”
“It is fair to say that this period of three years in Rome was il momento clou, the key moment, in my professional life”, Damiani continues. “Up until that time, I had been a clarinettist only – of course, I had the theoretical knowledge of my conservatory education in Milan under the belt, but that was no more than just the obligatory subjects. In Rome, by studying instrumentation, orchestration, and piano, the instrumentalist turned into an all-round musician. By that time, I knew I did not want to stay a clarinet player for the rest of my life. With the Pomeriggi orchestra, I worked with some great conductors, such as Celibidache, Bernstein, and Ackermann. All of these three maestros performed Cherubini’s ‘Anacreonte’ with us, a piece with an elaborate clarinet solo. All three of them wanted me to play the solo in a different way! Slower, faster… anyway, why cope with the whims of conductors when you can be one yourself? Without the additional education in Rome, I would never have been able to have the subsequent career I have had. Moreover, I spent three of the happiest years of my life in Rome. The second half of the 1950s was the time of La Dolce Vita. I met many interesting and outright friendly people. One of them was a Salesian priest who allowed me to use the piano in his apartment for free while he was away teaching theology. This helped me greatly in preparing for the various piano exams. At this priest’s instigation, I even formed a little dance band with some friends, called Desperados, but that was just for fun. Sometimes, I wonder why I ever left Rome, but there was a girl waiting for me in Lombardy…!”
Returning to Northern Italy in the fall of 1958, Pietro Damiani married his fiancée in the spring of the following year. Despite being offered the post of chief conductor of the Santo Domingo Theatre Orchestra in the Dominican Republic and the Republican Symphony Orchestra in Ankara, Turkey, Damiani settled for a job as a band conductor and institutor in the Italian Alps. Living in Morbegno (1958-’61) and Sondrio (1961-’68) in the Valtellina region, Damiani led various wind bands and taught music and choral singing at several local schools.
“This may seem an odd career choice”, Damiani admits, “but I could not see a young family living in the Caribbean or Turkey. Moreover, there are so many symphony orchestra conductors worldwide – and I remembered the famous saying: Meglio essere primi a Carthagine che secondi a Roma, ‘it is better being number one in Carthage than number two in Rome’. I was offered the job of band leader in Morbegno and decided to accept, and, though I did not know the area at all, I was immediately attracted to the idea of working in these friendly, provincial surroundings… I conducted the wind bands of Morbegno and Tirano, and created a third band in Valtellina’s capital, Sondrio. To augment my income, I decided to take up teaching music as well. To this end, I returned to the Verdi Conservatory, where I studied choral music and choral direction with Amerigo Bortone. In 1961, after two years of studies, I obtained these diplomas, both of which were obligatory for a music teacher. For seven years, I worked as a teacher at various secondary schools and the Provincial Music School in Sondrio. Several of my students are still conducting wind bands over there! We were very happy in Valtellina, where our two children were born. The people living there are the most pleasant race imaginable… in all towns and villages of the region, everyone knew who I was and greeted me in the streets: “Buongiorno maestro!” I truly was number one in Carthage!”
In 1968, ten years after turning down exotic adventures in Turkey and the Dominican Republic, Damiani made the leap to a foreign conducting job after all, albeit in a country somewhat closer by: Switzerland. He participated in a concorso for the job of artistic director and chief conductor of the Civica Filarmonica, the Municipal Concert Band, in Lugano in the Italian-speaking canton Ticino… and won the competition. “One day, the president of all wind bands in Lombardy visited me”, Damiani recalls. “He told me about the passing away of Montanaro, the previous maestro in Lugano, and about the competition due to be held to appoint his successor. He mentioned the possibilities of working in more professional surroundings with a big concert band. I told him I was happy with the money I earned, the life I led, the house I lived in… Though I wanted nothing of it initially, a friend of mine, who wanted to convince me to give the competition a go, took me in his car for a day in Lugano, which I had never visited before. It turned out to be a very pretty town indeed. To cut a long story short: I entered the competition! There were seven candidates from four different countries. I had to conduct two pieces, one of which was Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I had played that particular piece so often, that I disdained preparing the score… I knew it by heart! While conducting the Lugano band in front of the jurors, I stopped the band two or three times because they skipped part of the score. It turned out a mistake had been made in the transcription… a mistake by one of the jurors. I showed them exactly what the omission was. Perhaps, this show of confidence convinced them to pick me!”
Settling down in Lugano, Damiani stood at the helm of the Lugano Municipal Concert Band for an impressive thirty years (1968-’98). “The Civica Filarmonica consisted of seventy-five to eighty brass and woodwind players”, Damiani explains. “In other words: a full concert band. Some twenty-five of them were professionals, mostly from Milan… all the others excellent amateur musicians. Every week, we gave a performance at the main square of Lugano, the Piazza della Riforma, usually attended by a crowd of five hundred to one thousand. In total, I conducted over six hundred concerts there! For variation’s sake, I introduced new repertoire, especially the American composers Sousa, Bernstein, and Gershwin. Apart from these open-air performances, I conducted the band in countless concerts in Ticino and beyond. Moreover, we recorded several albums. Though Lugano, of course, has a bigger population and is less provincial than the Valtellina region, people living here are generally speaking very cordial and open. Like in Sondrio, people in the streets recognized and greeted me. My contacts with politicians and people working at the TV station were informal. I became an integral part of the local community.”
With the Civica Filarmonica, Damiani participated in four editions of the Federal Music Festival, a competition for Switzerland’s best brass bands held every five years; incredibly, Damiani’s Lugano band won first prize in all four editions, in Lucerne (1971), Bienne (1976), Lausanne (1981), and Winterthur (1986). Damiani: “Winterthur will always have a special place in my heart. After having played Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Capriccio Espagnol’, we were applauded by the audience for some fifteen minutes! Some people, overcome by emotions, were crying. They called me back on stage four times and, because the audience did not stop clapping, we were unable to perform our encore… the band which was scheduled after us was already waiting backstage! Five years later, my band did not participate in the competition, because it was held in Lugano and I was part of the organisational committee. I was commissioned to compose a music piece to be performed obligatorily by all bands taking part in the festival. Inspired by the papal visit to Lugano in 1990 and frescos in the Santa Maria degli Angeli church in Lugano showing scenes from the Passion, I composed a ‘Meditazione’, an eighteen-minute-piece dedicated to the Holy Father himself. In 1992, I was accorded the honour of an audience with Pope John Paul II in Rome, on which occasion I offered him the sheet music of the piece… an unforgettable experience. Ten years after that, the ‘Meditazione’ was played by the Italian Army Band in a Vatican Television broadcast aired worldwide.”
Whilst admitting that the ‘Meditazione’ is his most important creation, Pietro Damiani composed many more pieces, including a mass (1968), a Romance for Clarinet and Piano (1975), and an Eclogue for Solo Flute (1984). Moreover, apart from countless wind band adaptations of classical pieces, he wrote over one hundred marches and other pieces for wind band himself, including, most notably, the official hymn of the Pontifical Swiss Guard. Damiani comments: “Admittedly, composing never was my vocation. I have always felt more of a conductor than a composer. I think I can fairly say that I never wrote a masterpiece. First and foremost, I created music because the Municipal Band needed new repertoire. Apart from marches, I composed rhythmic-symphonic pieces in the style of Ravel and Gershwin. Many of my compositions have been published by editors in Europe and the United States. It was not until ending my musical directorship at the Civica Filarmonica in 1998, however, that I really managed to focus on composing. When writing music for a publishing house, I always take into account that their aim is to sell music. Therefore, I try to write wind band pieces that are interesting and pleasant to listen to, whilst not being too difficult to master for an average wind band. The fact that my compositions have sold well in countries such as Italy, the Netherlands, and the US has justified this approach.”
Apart from his involvement with the Lugano Municipal Concert Band, Pietro Damiani worked as a music teacher in Ticino for over forty years. He taught the basics of music at the Molino Nuovo elementary school in Lugano between 1968 and 1998, while he founded the Lugano Music School in 1977, of which he was the president for twenty-one years. “Up until that point, many parents sent their children directly to the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, where most of them failed to pass the entrance exam and were immediately sent back home. It was abundantly clear that these boys and girls needed a better preparation for conservatory. I had been teaching privately in Lugano for several years, but I thought: why not found a proper music school? It took me several years of bargaining with local politicians – the main reason I never applied for Swiss citizenship was that I wanted to remain unaffiliated to any political party in my discussions with local government – until the music school finally saw the daylight. Later onwards, Lugano got its own conservatory, but the music school still exists. As for the elementary school of Molino Nuovo… when I arrived in Switzerland in ’68, I aimed at continuing to teach at secondary schools, as I had done in Valtellina. However, as there were no suitable jobs available, I decided to give the elementary school a try… and I liked it from the first moment. These six to eleven year olds are like sponges; they absorbed everything I told them about the lives of Mozart and Beethoven. They came up with such original questions… I went there to have a good time myself!”
Between 1978 and 1998, Damiani was a permanent member of the John Philip Sousa Foundation, based in Chicago, which promotes wind band music worldwide. Three times, he travelled to Chicago to take his seat in the jury of the Sousa Foundation’s international competition for wind band compositions. In 1992, he conducted the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, the symphonic orchestra of Italian-Swiss radio, in a one-off performance on Lugano’s Piazza della Riforma.
After his retirement in 1998, Pietro Damiani continued working as a private music teacher, preparing students for conservatory. Strikingly, he was asked by TSI, Italian-Swiss TV, to host ‘Quando bionda aurora’, a weekly Sunday entertainment programme; he presented almost eighty editions of this broadcast (2001-’03). “I had never done any TV work before”, Damiani laughs. “A former oboist in my orchestra had become a TV producer and he wondered if I was interested. I gave it a try, did a screen-test, and did three winter seasons of this show. All kinds of music ensembles, varying from wind bands to small amateur orchestras and mandolin groups, were our guests. It was an interesting sidestep!” In 2007, Pietro Damiani was chosen the president of the Italian language section of the Swiss Society of Music Education (SSPM). He gave up private teaching in 2011.
Pietro Damiani in the Eurovision Song Contest
Damiani: “It was merely coincidental! Barbara Berta was chosen to represent Switzerland in the Eurofestival. She recorded the demo of ‘Dentro di me’ with three or four friends, including her partner at that time, Fabio Ciboldi. Fabio, an Italian from Como, was the first trumpet player in my orchestra for five or six years, but he had left by the time of this Eurovision project. I had met Barbara once or twice before, because she and Fabio were together. Fabio, Barbara, and their companions created a basic arrangement with keyboards, guitar, and a trumpet solo, played by Fabio himself. Fabio was an excellent brass player, but he did not have the background to write an orchestration. Therefore, once the song had been selected to go to Dublin, he needed someone to work up the studio arrangement into a proper orchestral score and conduct it in Ireland. Initially, he asked TV officials if there was someone working at RTSI (the public broadcaster in Ticino, BT) with the ability to take care of this. This not being the case, they advised him to look for a professional arranger in Milan.”
“Fabio must have thought looking for someone in Milan was a little too complicated and time-consuming”, Damiani continues, “and, instead, thought of his old maestro… the conductor of the wind band he had played in. It is at that point that I came in! Fabio telephoned me, asking if I was interested to work on this project. I invited him over to my place and he brought along the demo. Once I had listened to this, I decided to give it a go. True, it was the first – and only – time I worked on a pop orchestration. In the past, I had written some wind band adaptations to songs by Eros Ramazotti and other hit material to be played by my concert band. Longer ago, I had tried my hand at composing some canzonette, little songs, once in a while. This was at the request of Mario Robbiani, my friend who conducted the orchestra radiosa, the broadcaster’s entertainment orchestra, in Lugano. Mario always arranged songs like that himself. Other arrangers did not stand a chance with him – delegating work to others was a concept which was totally alien to him! If Robbiani had lived in 1997, he would have been the logical choice to arrange and conduct ‘Dentro di me’ for the Eurovision Song Contest. He was so experienced when it came to this type of music!”
Now that he brought up the name of his former conducting colleague, Damiani starts philosophizing about how the song would have sounded if Mario Robbiani (1930-1993) had been commissioned to write the orchestration: “Mario’s approach would have been different from mine. His arrangements were usually much smaller, leaning heavily on the string section of the orchestra. He hardly ever included trombones and horns in his scores, for example. When writing orchestrations, he worked extremely fast and preferred uncomplicated stuff, running straight to the goal: violins, celli, a piano, and a guitar – on most occasions, these were his ingredients. I went about differently: I specifically wanted to use all instruments of that wonderful big Irish orchestra which was to our disposal… an orchestra with trombones, clarinets, flutes, etcetera. In Dublin, the bassoon players of the orchestra even thanked me, because my orchestration was the only one of all countries which included bassoon parts… I gave them something to do! The foundation of my orchestration for ‘Dentro di me’ was the piano, the logical substitute for the keyboard of the demo version. Around it, I created a rich orchestral sound of strings, brass, and woodwind instruments.”
Damiani travelled to Dublin as the conductor of the Swiss delegation: “Our group – the TV production team, the commentator, and the performers – was very pleasant, molto simpatico! My wife came along too. Fabio Ciboldi is a very nice chap and Barbara Berta a lovely girl… and she was our star for the week! We had a special bus to our disposal, which brought us from our hotel to the theatre every day – a bus escorted by motorcycle police! Together, we went on some wonderful excursions. We all fell in love with Kilkenny and its castle. In Dublin, I was especially impressed by the Georgian houses with their typical doorways. The atmosphere in Dublin was perfect. The Irish organisation was spot on, but they made no secret of it that they did not want to win it again because of the huge production costs involved.”
“The rehearsals were easy”, Damiani continues. “We had three or four of them in the week leading up to the concert. I was not nervous at all. At the first rehearsal, I listened very carefully if all parts were played correctly, but it was clear the musicians in the orchestra had been well prepared. What an excellent orchestra! True, I do not speak English, but this was not a problem. I simply said attenzione – pay attention to this and to that. And being a conductor, I was able to communicate with manual gestures… but as I was happy with what they did, there was not much reason for further talking. Sì, maestro, avanti! I was particularly impressed by the pianist of the orchestra. Given the fact that the arrangement leaned heavily on the piano, her role was important and she did an excellent job. I talked to her away from the rehearsals about coming over to Switzerland and doing a concert with my orchestra in Lugano, but, unfortunately, this never materialized.”
In 1997, the use of the orchestra was no longer compulsory. Four of the twenty-five participating countries did not use the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at all. Damiani: “Many of the participating songs went straight ahead without any surprises in the melody. They required some string accompaniment – at most. ‘Dentro di me’, on the other hand, has a melody which I would like to call ‘dignified’… excellently suited to an orchestra and a grand arrangement. One of my fellow conductors was Lucio Fabbri from Italy, an experienced conductor in the Sanremo Festival. Both he and I were alumni of the Verdi Conservatory in Milan and we had met before. It was nice having a chance to talk to each other again in Dublin. As for the performing artists, I remember the five ladies from the Netherlands (Mrs. Einstein, BT). Their song may have been weak, but they were excellent vocalists and stage performers!”
The Swiss entry was one of the few in the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest to be performed entirely without backing tracks. Even Fabio Ciboldi, who was behind Barbara Berta on stage, played his trumpet solos live. The international juries did not reward the Swiss entry for this brave approach; with a total of five points, ‘Dentro di me’ finished near the bottom of the score board. Does Damiani have an explanation for the bad result? “I never believed we would win, but I was confident we could do quite well. The song itself was not bad, but perhaps the music and lyrics were slightly repetitive. Barbara, la brava, who was not a beginning artist but not that experienced either, was extremely nervous. On the night, she made one slight mistake – one note which she messed up. It was the emotion of the moment. Fabio Ciboldi was strained too. He admitted he made one mistake in his solos. So there were two slight mistakes, but I do not believe these are an explanation for the downfall of the song… no, there must have been something in the music or the lyrics which did not convince the jurors. The orchestra played flawlessly. We did our utmost to get the maximum out of it.”
In spite of the disappointing result, Damiani looks back in pleasure on his Eurovision participation: “For Barbara and Fabio, this must have been a major disappointment. They must have had a shimmer of hope to do well – and hope is the last to die, as the proverb says! I was not in it to win, however. I went to Dublin to conduct this fantastic eighty-piece radio orchestra. It was a special experience… a pleasant and memorable moment. It was an isolated event when overlooking my entire career. I had never done anything like that before and I never did something similar afterwards. It did not influence my professional activities in a positive or negative way. No, everything was concentrated in those three minutes. When I came back to Lugano, I continued conducting the Civica Filarmonica and I continued teaching music as if there had been no Eurovision Song Contest!”
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