SAN GIMIGNANO, Italy -- The Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra left the relative quiet of the Italian countryside in Salice-Terme for the watery splendor of Venice. It was a quick dip into the City of Canals -- a 40-minute boat ride to and from the Venetian sights and a zig-zag walking tour of the maze of back streets, ending in the famed St. Mark's Square.
But there was little time to waste and another four-hour bus ride awaited them to the middle of Tuscany and the spa town of Montecatini Terme, which would serve as home base for a trio of concerts.
The first was in San Gimignano, a 2,000-year old medieval town with stone towers that, from a distance, looked like the Manhattan skyline.
The students had free time to explore and shop, which they appreciated, before taking in a classic Italian dinner at Restaurant Locanda La Mandragola, where there was a view of the Tuscan valley from the back terrace.
The concert took place in the town's main square, with most of the winds and brass housed in the large arched entryway to the San Gimignano theater and the strings spread out into the square. Audience members sat in chairs, along the walls and up the steps of the church opposite the square.
The orchestra obviously took a leap of confidence from the start. Bernstein's "Candide" had a real urban thrust, and the first movement from Vaughn Williams' "English Folk Songs" had an almost jaunty feel.
Although some of the softer passages were lost to the people sitting farther away on the steps, the crowd didn't want to let the orchestra go at the end. Several couples waltzed to Verdi's "Va Pensiero" while others softly swayed. A number of American tourists roundly responded to "Stars and Stripes Forever," resulting in a brief recapitulation of Copland's "Hoe-down."
Among the enthusiastic audience members were the Henne family -- John and Dara and children Jack, Luke, Mark and Clark, who are Fox Chapel neighbors of PYSO's four Hilals -- and their extended family.
The next day the orchestra caught its collective breath, relaxing at the hotel pool or taking the funicular, similar to Pittsburgh's incline, up the hill to the quaint town of Montecatini Alto.
There was history of another sort to be had at the evening concert, at Terme Tuccio Spa just across the street from the hotel. It was a huge marble temple seemingly built to honor the music that was being played. Breathtaking Doric marble columns and sumptuous murals in the galleries surrounded the orchestra.
It also provided the best environment yet, coming closest to a concert hall. The strings blended from top to bottom, with a more robust sound from the cellos and basses, and the French horns took on a clarion call.
That meant that smaller moments in Dvorak's "New World" symphony and Repshigi's "Pines of Rome" took on a greater meaning. Conductor Lawrence Loh also changed the order of the program, switching the atmospheric textures of Berlioz' "Dance" and "March to the Scaffold" from "Symphonie Fantastique" with the more familiar Dvorak "New World" symphony. Once again the Verdi drew a hushed response from the crowd.
Some conducted along with conductor Loh, who increasingly engaged with the audience, and wept at the end.
It was apparent that night that Verdi was an important part of Italy's fabric, not only in his music, but also in such Montecatini landmarks as the Verdi Cafe, the Viale Giuseppi Verdi and the Grand Hotel Plaza, where the composer often stayed.
Fourth of July the next day was celebrated in a quirky Italian style. The group had to choose between swimming in the Mediterranean at a private beach or touring the walled city of Lucca. But first they went to the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa, where the students were as much an eyeful as the building itself as they enthusiastically posed for photo after photo. Push it over or hold it up?
There was a barbecue for the hungry travelers that evening, although hot dogs were encased in crusty Italian bread and "hamburgers" appeared to be breaded veal patties. Sides included french fries and apricots.
The next night was the final concert in Florence, part of the prestigious Florence Youth Festival. This concert had the most impressive setting in the Loggia dei Lanzi, with a collection of statues that included Cellini's famed "Perseus." But it was just a corner of the vast Piazza della Signoria, which could fit a couple of football fields within its confines.
The students had only a few hours to acquaint themselves with the City of Lilies in a walking tour, but the history of it all seemed to infuse their performance. They saved their best performance for last, playing for the largest crowd yet in a way far beyond their years.
In a program filled with finale pieces, there were several standing ovations, unusual because most of the crowd had to sit on the ground.
"Hoe-down" had a thigh-slapping cohesion, the best yet, but this savvy crowd, apparently a diverse assemblage of countries, truly appreciated the Dvorak.
Classical music lover Seymour Raize of Columbus, Ohio, was there with his granddaughters and called the concert "the highlight of my trip to Italy." Hundreds of audience members hung around to take photos of the group as they gathered for their own group photo.
One older Italian gentleman asked where the orchestra would play next. When he heard that this would be the last, he said, "It is Italy's loss."
Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.