Alessandra Cuffaro and Simeone Tartaglione play a key
part in the Italian festival’s Gala Concert.//Courtesy of
Musicians Simeone Tartaglione and Alessandra Cuffaro have performed together countless times, yet no concert may be as memorable as their first encounter as teenagers.
Tartaglione, then a pianist, and Cuffaro, a violinist, grew up in similar circles of Agrigento, in Sicily, but they didn’t meet until a mutual friend hired them to perform at a wedding.
“When she started to play, I was shocked with how much power she had—how expressive and intense,” says Tartaglione, music director and conductor for the Newark Symphony and music director for the Delaware Youth Symphony Orchestra at The Music School of Delaware. “It was breathtaking.”
Cuffaro felt a mutual admiration for Tartaglione, and the spark stayed with them for years. They married in 2005.
Inspiring each other every step of the way, the couple have amassed an impressive musical résumé that includes performances before record-breaking audiences. The two will bring their talents to the St. Anthony’s Italian Festival Gala Concert in Wilmington this month.
Cuffaro discovered her love of music as a toddler. At around age 3, she saw a movie about 19th-century violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini and fell “crazy in love” with the sound.
“For me, the violin isn’t just an instrument,” she says. “It’s a lyric voice.”
Tartaglione’s passion for music started by accident. A severe fall at age 5 sent him to the hospital, then to a friend’s apartment to convalesce. The family owned a piano, and Tartaglione quickly found himself messing around with the keys. Soon after his recovery, he began lessons.
“I was a very bad student,” he says. “I didn’t practice at all and wasted talent for years.”
For reasons even he doesn’t quite understand, Tartaglione’s attitude changed at age 14. Newly dedicated to the instrument, he practiced by himself all summer long—shocking his teacher.
“I went back to her, and she didn’t recognize me anymore,” Tartaglione says with a laugh. “She said, ‘You really did all this on your own?’”
Communicating with the soul
Tartaglione later studied composition and conducting at Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome and piano performance at Vincenzo Bellini Institute in Sicily. An apt student, Cuffaro needed only six years—not the usual 12—to graduate with honors from Arcangelo Corelli Conservatory in Messina. She earned a second degree in chamber music from the highly selective Santa Cecilia.
After school, Cuffaro won numerous international competitions as a soloist. She and Tartaglione would perform together in concerts all over Europe and the United States. They would also compete—and often win—in violin and piano “duels” against other musicians.
Tartaglione’s interests eventually shifted from piano to conducting, where he also found great success. To a roaring, sold-out crowd, he led a show at the Kennedy Center, and he conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony before 35,000 people when Pope Francis visited Washington, D.C.
“Conducting is one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” he says. “It’s like a fire that all of a sudden starts at the same time in different places. You’re communicating with not just players, but with their souls. They get it when you open yourself with what you feel about the piece you’re conducting.”
Tartaglione says he sees conducting as a type of mental telepathy, where he transfers his energy to all the attentive musicians in front of him.
“I move my hand, and things happen—very often exactly how I was thinking it,” he says. “It’s really kind of a miracle that overwhelms me with emotion every time I do it.”
A marathon of sprints
Cuffaro, too, knows that something immensely powerful comes from performing. The belief moved to the fore when she became the first and, so far, only Italian woman to perform Paganini’s 24 Capriccis in one concert. They are reputed to be among the most difficult pieces written for violin.
“Many other violinists have tried to prepare for this ambitious performance, but no one has made it,” she says. “I entered Italian music history. It’s a great, great honor.”
The 24 Capriccis run between 1 minute, 13 seconds and 5 minutes, 40 seconds each. Their entire performance takes about two hours—two hours the player spends all alone onstage.
“It pushes the technical possibilities of the instrument,” Cuffaro says—and the limits of the musician’s focus and athleticism. “It’s not just moving your fingers. It’s the coordination, the position of the elbow and how to move your body. Each one is like a 100-meter sprint, and you have to do it 24 times.”
The achievement required three years of practice. Tartaglione helped by holding the book of sheet music in bed as Cuffaro sang the notes from memory. (Tartaglione admits with a smile that he sometimes dozed off as Cuffaro worked late into the night.)
Harnessing the dedication, the adrenaline and her own natural abilities, Cuffaro mastered the feat in 2004. Since then, she has performed the 24 Capriccis 23 times in places from New York to Rome to León, Spain.
“Every time she performs,” Tartaglione says, “it’s an exploding energy bomb.”
The accomplishment earned Cuffaro the Cultural Award from the Italian Language Inter-Cultural Alliance and numerous national TV appearances, including one on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” last year. Her artistry and warm, expressive way of touching the violin strings helped her to best a thousand other performers for the spot.
“I tell my students it’s not just doing the note and playing somebody else’s piece,” says Cuffaro. “It’s understanding the meaning and feeling the music inside of you. Then this chord on paper becomes alive because we’re there. The audience feels your emotion—a sad or happy moment—and it reaches their own hearts. Music is the universal language.”
She hopes her students at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., will one day be recognized for their “unique way of playing, their impeccable technique, sensitivity, and deep knowledge and understanding of the exquisite and noble art of playing the violin,” she says, “and people will say, ‘This is Professor Cuffaro’s student.’”
An appreciation of music
Tartaglione also teaches at Catholic University, where he often tells his students that he doesn’t consider conducting “a job.”
“Every day I stand in front of a group of players and I make music,” says the 44-year-old maestro, who includes music director of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra in Reston, Va., on his résumé. “I often feel younger at the end of a performance, and I would pay to do it again. I’m not kidding. It’s an incredible event.”
Tartaglione used to clock in at a numbing 9-to-5 office job in Rome long before his music career took off. He gleefully gave it up to pour his soul—plus some 18-hour days and long commutes—into conducting.
Tartaglione and Cuffaro live with their two daughters in Gaithersburg, Md. He travels to Delaware once or twice a week for his jobs at the Newark Symphony and The Music School of Delaware.
“A lot of other symphonies are jealous with what I do with the Newark Symphony,” he says. “We’re in good financial shape. It’s a testament that Delaware supports the arts. I love that.”
Yet classical music’s audience—in the state and elsewhere—can always grow, Tartaglione says, especially since many people wrongly believe this genre isn’t approachable.
“Classical music is 100 percent of human emotions,” he says. “The beauty is you can just go on the surface, but there are as many layers as you want to see. From the first time you hear it to the hundredth time, you dive inside the piece and, at the same time, you go inside yourself.”
Delaware’s Gem: St. Anthony’s Italian Festival Gala Concert
Husband and wife Simeone Tartaglione and Alessandra Cuffaro have attended Italian festivals all over the world. St. Anthony’s Italian Festival in Wilmington holds a special place among them.
The event attracts thousands of people and includes tasty treats, midway rides and cultural events every June, but the showcase of classical music truly separates St. Anthony’s from its peers. Tartaglione credits Jean Scalessa, executive director of ARIANNA Alliance, for creating this unique combination.
“We do a full symphonic orchestral concert,” says Tartaglione, who serves as artistic director and conductor of the festival’s Gala Concert. “Delaware has a gem here. Even in Italy, you don’t have this classical music accompaniment.”
This year, the show will feature Ponchielli’s “Danza Delle Ore” and Verdi’s “Nabucco Overture,” among other selections, as well as Cuffaro performing a piece by Paganini.
St. Anthony’s Italian Festival in Wilmington runs June 10–17, with the Gala Concert kicking off the event on June 10 at 3 p.m. For more information, including the full schedule, visit stanthonysfestival.com.