Concert pianist Laura Magnani is a devotee of romantic and modern composers, from Schumann to Mendelssohn to Prokofiev, but she feels a special connection with Frederic Chopin. "There is a link between me and Chopin, some sort of affinity, in the sense that he speaks my same language," she says. "What Chopin expresses in his music — the longing for his family, being away from his [home]land, being apart from the people he loved ... When I hear that music, I know exactly what he's feeling."
Magnani's strong connections with Chopin must have been apparent from the beginning: Her early piano teachers predicted that she would become a concert pianist. "They said I had that kind of soul, and I never believed them," Magnani says. But when she started getting requests to perform, first from friends and friends of friends, and then from festivals and performance halls, she changed her mind. "I started traveling all over Europe, and then in the U.S. and Canada. I didn't say no to anything. I kept saying yes." And this year, she said yes to Piccolo Spoleto.
Magnani will be sharing her skillful, emotional playing with Charleston audiences at the City Gallery as part of the Spotlight Concert Series. This will be her second time performing in Piccolo, and she is thrilled to be returning. "I had a fantastic time the first time I came, and then of course I feel extremely flattered that they want me back this year."
Magnani's passion for music, though deeply personal, extends far beyond herself and her career. Speaking from her home in Spoleto, Italy, she expresses distress about the state of the arts in Europe, and especially her home country. "We are the land of culture and of the arts ... but the way artists are treated in my country is terrible. There is no more love of culture, of things that take a little more time, attention — everything is superficial now," she says. Magnani has had a firsthand view of the way Italy's attitude toward the arts has changed, as she also serves as the artistic director of the Spoleto (Italy) Piano Festival, which she founded 16 years ago. "It's been a big challenge. It's difficult to find the support, the right amount of money," she says. "Especially in the last 10 years, it's been going down the wrong path."
Charleston's classical music community had its own brush with death, of course, a couple of years ago when the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) shut down temporarily. We've seen what it looks like when a community forgets to value — or at least, doesn't express the fact that it values — its artistic members. To Charleston's great credit, the CSO shutdown scared people into remembering why a symphony orchestra is important, and why we as a city want to be the kind of place that nurtures classical music and the arts as a whole.
Our story is certainly a bright spot, and Magnani has seen a strong interest in the arts throughout the U.S. during her travels. Yet that doesn't reverse the troubling trend that seems to be taking hold in much of the world — and here in the States, as well, where the arts are vulnerable to governmental budget cuts. Magnani worries that we are coming closer to a day when children won't know the classical greats in any artistic discipline: Bach, Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart. "What will happen when we stop playing Schumann or Brahms ... when will it be possible that you could die and you've never heard a Mahler symphony or a Schubert lied." This is part of why Magnani teaches young pianists, in addition to her performing career. "I believe that there is a responsibility toward very young people. We have to shape their minds, give them a love of complexity because now everything is simple, everything is immediate, and we don't have the patience to wait for something that is a little more complex ... [Without that] we have no way to express ourselves and our feelings," she says.
So when you're making the rounds during Spoleto this year, know that while you're supporting the individual performers and artists whose work you engage with, you're also doing something bigger: You're affirming the importance of the arts in our culture, both now and for the future. And that is a sacred thing, says Magnani. "I feel that we have a sort of mission ... Music, painting, sculpture, architecture, all the arts need much better protection. We have to keep them safe, transmit them to the next generation."