Giovanni Sollima
© Francesco Ferla | Almendra Music

If you didn't know any better, you'd be forgiven for mistaking Italy's Trentino province for Austria or Switzerland. Both countries have borders nearby and both have heavily influenced the local culture. You'll find Spätzle, speck, Strudel and Sachertorte on menus. Ladin, the officially recognised language, is a blend of Swiss Romansh, Friulian and Trentino dialects. Embracing the best of what the territory has to offer, the annual Sounds of the Dolomites festival makes for as good a time as any to visit the area. Appropriately, with Sicilian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima on hand, intercultural exchange will be a thematic thread running through this year's edition.

In one of the standout events, Sollima will join forces with Israeli mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital during a 3-day trek. The programme they are putting together is intriguingly eclectic. “There will be some Benedetto Marcello and Salamone Rossi in there – some of the great Jewish Italian composers from the Venetian Republic – as well as Dario Castello and Vivaldi. But there will also be writers from the Balkans and around the Adriatic, along with popular songs and perhaps some of my own pieces”, Sollima tells me by phone. “It will be full of variety, contrasts and surprises; an investigation of ancient music, of its popular roots, of natural acoustics.”

Anybody that has attended one of the festival's events will know the format. This is the series for lovers of music and walking, ideally together. Jazz, folk, world and chamber music concerts are presented mostly free of charge in natural open-air venues dotted around Trentino's Dolomites, and audiences are required to do at least some walking to reach them (helpfully, these are graded according to difficulty). Sollima and Avital will present two concerts, the first of which will take place in the middle of the trek (graded “E: easy walk with no technical challenges) and the second at the foot of the mountain at its conclusion. Apart from the music, a maximum of 40 ticket holders will be provided lunches, two nights in a rifugio with half board and a mountain guide.

Avi Avital
© Zohar Ron

Avital, whose playing has been described by Bachtrack as “bursting with life”, is an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist and the first mandolin player to be nominated for a Grammy Award. It was an unusual idea to pair up with a cellist. What inspired this unlikely partnership? According to Sollima, the two instruments have shared “popular and noble roots”. Certainly, It will be interesting to hear the cellist's famously radiant playing combined with Avital's elaborate weave of notes.

Sollima, previously a Sounds of the Dolomites regular, makes a long-awaited return with these concerts after a 5-year absence. His relationship stretches back to 2001 when the festival commissioned Canti Rocciosi, an uplifting piece for orchestra, choir and video projection which is “dedicated to the Dolomites and mountain culture”, according to a programme note, and features disparate texts by Hemingway, Dante and works by Sicilian, Ladin and Alpine writers. For Sollima, the premiere was a good introduction to the challenges of playing in the Dolomites. “A thunderstorm was forecast and we were terrified the instruments would be damaged. I remember we played the piece as quickly as we could, and then ran for cover.”

The Dolomites are not the first Italian terrain you would expect Sollima to be passionate about. While there is no questioning the beauty and majesty of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose lush valleys and forests are home to a rich variety of fauna and whose distinctive pink rock formations host a daily natural light shows at sunset, it is a world apart from the parched, rugged landscapes of Sollima's own Sicily. Sollima says the attraction stems from his inherent multiculturalism. “We Sicilians are the product of Norman, Arab, Greek and Spanish cultures. My name, for example, has Arabic roots. I have lived in many places: Berlin, the United States, Milan. There is a room in my head in which dialects, languages, scales and ancient songs reverberate. In the Dolomites all of this finds expression.”

Val Durone, Val di Fassa, Trentino
© M. Montibeller

But playing in the mountains is not easy. “You get a completely different feedback, and you have to create the acoustic yourself by deciding where exactly to play.” That said, it is also highly rewarding. “The public is extremely close to you; they could almost touch the instruments. There are no dressing rooms. It's just you and the audience. The music is laid bare. There is something spiritual in the sound, something mystical, and the music benefits from the fact you are taken out of your comfort zone.”

Clearly, Sollima does not lack adventure. Unruffled by the threat of downpour, he will be taking his trusty 1679 Ruggeri cello with him on the trek. The same sense of intrepid exploration underpins his broadly varying artistic collaborations. Sollima has teamed up with the likes of Patti Smith, Peter Greenaway and Italian jazz legend Paulo Fresu in the past. His partnership with Avi Avital, for whom Sollima is currently writing a concerto, promises to be especially fruitful. In September, the duo will perform at the Musikfest Bremen in Germany. Clearly, they have already gelled enough to permit an element of spontaneity. “We haven't finalised the programme yet,” Sollima says of the Dolomites trekking concert. “Even after the deadline, there are always things that are added at the end. Whatever happens, it will be an extremely intimate bit of story telling.”

Anyone planning on attending the concert should expect the unexpected, if Sollima's previous concerts are anything to go by. When in the 2008 edition of the festival he joined forces with Ernst Reijseger – “a cellist and a brother” – the concert took a last minute swerve. “We had rehearsed the programme in advance. But when we actually got to the concert location we decided it all needed to change. It turned out to be an incredible event. There was lots of joking with the audience, lots of improvisation, and all around madness. By the end they were all on their feet and dancing.”

Val Brenta, Trentino
© Luconi Bisti

Apart from the music, Sollima is particularly looking forward to sharing a good mountain grappa with his old friend Mario Brunello, a fellow world-class cellist and artistic director of the Sounds of the Dolomites. They are, apparently, chalk and cheese. Brunello, who is from the region, “lives and breathes the Dolomites”, while Sollima, whose native Mount Etna by comparison “resembles Mars”, feels very much like a visitor. “It is not my area like it is [Brunello's], but I love it there. I am able to draw energy from the mountains, to be reactive.”

It would be hard to imagine somebody that is more fanatical about the cello than Sollima, who relishes playing the instrument in unusual concert formats. N-Ice, a Trentino-sponsored initiative, saw Sollima play a cello made of ice in a bid to raise awareness about climate change. His innovative 100 cellos project has seen cello flash mobs presented in Milan and rendered Ravenna a “celloland”. What are the chances, then, of some unprogrammed jamming from Sollima and Brunello? Clearly, with the Sicilian cellist on hand, anything could happen at this year's edition of the Sounds of the Dolomites.

This article was sponsored by Trentino Marketing.