Music Review: ‘Don Carlos’

March 11th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 8, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

What’s the recipe for grand opera? Take a soupcon of historic fact and mix well with large dollops of passion and heaping portions of great music. Then add fine singers, instrumentalists, appropriate costumes, scenery, a stage director with a vision and a conductor with the grit of a field marshal and, voila: “Don Carlos,” in just four hours and 30 minutes, two intermissions and five acts of glory. Sarasota Opera, under the direction of Victor DeRenzi, has been making its way through the entire Verdi catalogue, including the composer’s three versions of “Don Carlos.”

On Saturday, Sarasota Opera opened its production of the five-act French version, which gives us the opening act, omitted in the other editions, that gives the rest of the opera a raison d’etre. Finally, we’re able to see for ourselves the love-at-first-sight connection made between Don Carlos, infante of Spain, and Elisabeth de Valois, two young people (history tells us he was 15 and she just 13), and why they’re so ecstatically happy that their planned marriage is one they would have chosen.

We also see that Carlos’ father, Philippe II, king of Spain, who arranged the marriage, has — for political reasons — changed his mind and decided it’s in everyone’s best interests if he marries Elisabeth, himself. That’s the back story we only hear about but never witness in the other versions. And, believe me, if you’re already feeling confused, that opening act helps mightily in the next several hours as we wade through political struggles, religious wars, the pageant of an auto-da-fé with its street fair atmosphere surrounding prisoners about to be executed, inexplicable ghostly apparitions, friendships that hold bonds so deep they cut through life, deceptions, jealousies and a horrific display of the terrors of the Inquisition.

But it’s the music that makes this grand opera truly grand. Try as she may, Stage Director Stephanie Sundine couldn’t do much beyond what Verdi gave us, so most of the staging is static because the composer filled this work with a multitude of expository arias, duets and other exquisite small ensembles that allow us to see into the thoughts of the characters without much action. To have much movement on stage would be counter to the essence of Verdi’s concept of this opera. So, it’s best to sit back, appreciate the beautiful scenery by David Gordon, 16th-century costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan, lighting effects that bring it all together by Ken Yunker, and let the sound of music pour into your soul.

And pour it does. Michelle Johnson, as Elisabeth, brings a warm, rich, beautiful Verdian soprano that always seems to have more to give. On opening night she was careful not to over-sing and, as a result, her tone was always sumptuous and large with floating high notes reminiscent of a young Leontyne Price. Mary Phillips, the Princess Eboli who loves Carlos but is not only rejected by him but also a very dangerous woman scorned, sang and acted her role with great passion and understanding. Her voice has grown extraordinarily over the years since we first heard her in recital in New York City and, while she hasn’t lost her wonderful musicality, she has taken on a wider vibrato, darker sound and tendency (on this occasion, anyway), to over-sing. It’s not necessary. The voice is there, and she doesn’t need to push it.

Jonathan Burton, the Don Carlos, displayed a brilliant, clarion tenor that reverberated through the house and gave a passion to his role that grew vocally and emotionally as the opera went on. In fact, Burton and Johnson were able to imbue their characters with a humanity that gave us insights into their growth from carefree lovers to honorable, caring friends — a bow to Sundine, who always looks into the characters in her stagings.

Kevin Short was an incisive, frighteningly cold Philippe, quite capable of killing his own son if he thought God would approve. His raw, rugged bass-baritone is a perfect match for his character, as is Marco Nistico’s brash baritone and no-holds-barred sound as Rodrigue, the friend-through-thick-and-thin who eventually gives his life for his friend.

Young Bok Kim made a terrifying Grand Inquisitor, showing an upper range to his stolid bass that we hadn’t heard before. And Tyler Putnam, a studio artist, showed great vocal prowess as a Monk.

Special mention must be made of the magnificent chorus members. Their sound overcame the oratorio-like stance they maintained on stage, pouring out Verdi’s music like a group double their size. And DeRenzi brought out the best in his orchestra. Best of all, no matter how much solid support DeRenzi gave the singers, he never allowed the powerful orchestra to cover them.

“Don Carlos” is a long song but, historically and musically, it’s well worth the sit.

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MUSIC REVIEW: ‘The Golden Cockerel’

February 24th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 23, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Scenic designer David P. Gordon wins the Golden Cockerel Award for best achievement in set design and Howard Tsvi Kaplan comes in a close second for his costumes in Sarasota Opera’s production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely performed work, “The Golden Cockerel.” But there’s more to opera than colorful scenery and beautiful costumes. There must be energy and acting, great orchestral playing and, of course, electrifying singing. Sarasota Opera came through in some of these categories, but not all.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the composer who wove musically spellbinding tales in his mesmerizing “Scheherazade,” took us on an excursion to Spain via “Capriccio Espagnol,” gave us a taste of Orthodox religion in his “Russian Easter Overture” and allowed us a few good swats as he took off on “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” seems to have had a single motif for his opera, “The Golden Cockerel.” Where most composers of operas have motifs for each character or idea (think Wagner), Rimsky-Korsakov has one theme that starts in the Overture and continues through each act, especially in the “Hymn to the Sun,” probably the best-known aria in the piece, sung by the Queen of Shemakha. Perhaps that’s why so much of this opera sounds familiar. After all, it has not been performed in this country since the production in the late 1960s at New York City Opera starring Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle. Although I was in that audience, that was a long time ago and I haven’t heard it since.

Sometimes operas and symphonies that are rarely performed have a reason for their obscurity. It may be that “The Golden Cockerel” falls into this category. Or it may be that the production at Sarasota Opera wasn’t up to the company’s usual excellence.

Certainly the singing was good. After a slightly shaky start, which, unfortunately, featured her big aria opening the second act, Alexandra Batsios, as The Queen, came into good voice and negotiated the vast range and coloratura passages the composer wrote for her part. She’s a good actress, too; she managed to dance through the stylized staging by Tom Diamond without looking self-conscious or strained. An American singer, she handled the Russian deftly.

Grigory Soloviov and Timur Bekbosunov were the two Russians in principal parts and they seemed born to the music. Soloviov gave us an unflinching King Dodon with a powerful baritone verging on the bass. And Bekbosunov traversed deathly high notes that would make Juan Diego Florez blanch.

The smaller parts were, for the most part, taken by Studio Artists, including the King’s sons (Jon Jurgens and Kenneth Stavert), General Polkan (William Roberts) and the Golden Cockerel (Riley Svatos). Special mention must be made of Studio Artist Daryl Freedman who sang the part of the Housekeeper with a large, round contralto with a great top extension.

And then there was the chorus — the resonant, magnificent chorus (Chorus Master Roger Bingaman) that rang through the house like a Russian choir on Easter.

So, if the singing, scenery and costumes were splendid, what was the problem with this “Golden Cockerel”? Well, there were coordination problems in the orchestra. The strings, which are usually so good in this instrumental ensemble, just weren’t together. And, although conductor Ekhart Wycik kept things well paced with a nice forward movement, there were several times the singers and his orchestra were askew.

It was opening night so one hopes the kinks in the curtain’s openings and closings will get worked out, as well as the curtain calls at the end of each act, which seemed unrehearsed and messy.

But the main difficulty with this production was the overly styled staging, which lacked energy, direction and focus. Diamond didn’t seem to grasp the concept of this fairy tale and its politicized doctrine. He played it too broadly or, at times, not at all, leaving the performers to wander about the stage, seemingly without thought for who they are or what they’re doing.

There are many facets to opera, and the music, singing and brilliant colors of “The Golden Cockerel” may be enough to carry some into this odd land of disenchantment. I wanted more.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks V

February 24th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 23, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

It’s important that orchestras work with a variety of conductors to expand their vision, and Sunday, at the Masterworks V concert, the Sarasota Orchestra hit a jackpot with Carlos Miguel Prieto. The Mexican-born music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic and a pair of ensembles in Mexico is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard, but his real credentials are those he brings with him on the podium: clarity, warmth and incisive ideas about what he wants in the music. Best of all, he knows how to get it.

Never over conducting and never pushing the orchestra past its finest moments, he brought a wonderful control to his conducting that was at its most marvelous in Berlioz’s mind-blowing “Symphonie fantastique.”
This phenomenal piece of program music is so electrifying it could cause a conductor to overdo, running away with tempos and dynamics, but Prieto and the Sarasota Orchestra were in full control. The orchestra played with a crystalline sound, great colors and an energy that always matched the composer’s intentions.

From the opening “Reveries and Passions” through “A Ball,” a pastoral trip “In the Country,” the electrifying “March to the Scaffold” and the final “Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath” with its hobbling waltz-with-the-devil and Dies Irae, there wasn’t one movement on the podium or sound in the orchestra that wasn’t stirring and meaningful.

Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, which opened the program, was conducted without a score and with a rearrangement of the orchestra’s seating, putting the second violins opposite the firsts and bringing the winds closer to the audience. It’s a classical formation, and it worked beautifully, with the conductor eliciting a lean sound that never lost its richness. While tempos were brisk, nothing was pushed and, as one member of the ensemble said after the performance, “The last movement of that symphony is groovy.” I’d say that about the whole concert.

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MUSIC REVIEW: A Charming but Inconsistent ‘Marriage of Figaro’ at Sarasota Opera

February 16th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 15, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

On the way back to our seats on opening night of Sarasota Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” one woman gave us a knowing look and said, “Now we’ll find out if Figaro ever manages to get married.” Mozart wrote all sorts of road blocks into his timeless opera, along with so many twists and turns to the plot it’s hard to separate one misadventure from the next. But he did it with so much finesse, audiences over the centuries have simply gone with the flow and figured it would all work out in the end.

And, in Sarasota Opera’s production, work out it does with broad humor, some excellent voices, beautiful scenery and occasional bits of clever staging. There are even some stylistic ornaments dropped into arias as we make our way through the hilarious fiascos that befall almost everyone on stage. The problem is, the singing, staging and ornamentations are inconsistent so, just as we’re having a jolly good time revisiting our favorite operatic personalities, we’re brought back to reality by a misguided tempo, a wavering pitch or a voice that’s miscast for Mozart.

The problems began with the well-known Overture, which conductor Marcello Cormio took at a clip so fast he overlooked the miraculous colors and contrasts of Mozart. Dotted rhythms were often bypassed because tempos were more vivace than allegro. And those wondrously contrasting dynamics that make Mozart Mozart were flown over with little regard to style.

The singers had trouble keeping up with the pace set in the pit and, as a result, much of the Mozartean charm was lost. But some of them managed in spite of the conductor. Philip Cutlip as Figaro never faltered, and his well-balanced baritone and magnetism made him a lovable, clever (though occasionally duped) groom-to-be. From the opening, in which stage director Allison Grant had him measuring space in the bride and groom’s new bedroom with his hands — first counting out yards on the floor and then moving his wandering hands to his fiancée’s alluring waist — we knew the staging was going to be both clever and broad.

Some of the characters kept the slapstick to a minimum but still got hearty and well-deserved laughs in all the right places. Maeve Höglund’s Susanna (Figaro’s fiancée) was both beguiling and playful. Susanna is on stage more than she’s off, and almost everything in the opera centers on her ingenuity, shrewdness and skill as a sweet but clever young woman. Between her bright voice and appealing demeanor, Höglund gave us a memorable and winning Susanna.

Kristen Choi, a sprightly Studio Artist with the company, played the trouser role of Cherubino to perfection, vocally and dramatically, coming across as a lovestruck teenager who falls in love with everything in a skirt, gets himself in hot water every second and still has the audience rooting for him to the very end.

Sean Anderson was a swaggering stereotype-of-a-Count Almaviva, blusteringly jealous of his wife, desirous of the young, about-to-be-wed Susann and always wondering why the world is so against his possessive, self-aggrandizing manners. Anderson was in fine voice, but his voice wasn’t always suited to the subtleties of Mozart and, as a result, he sounded more like Iago in “Otello” than a Mozartean count.

Another oddly cast cast-member was Maria Antúnez, Countess Almaviva. Antúnez has a large, powerful, dark-hued voice that’s more suited to Verdi than Mozart. Her two big arias, “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono,” lacked the nuances and colors Mozart cries out for.

There are no really small roles in Mozart. All the characters, especially in this opera, are important parts of the ensemble. Ricardo Lugo was a sturdy Bartolo. Studio Artists Daryl Freedman (Marcellina), Jon Jurgens (Basilio), Peter Drackley (Don Curzio) and Joseph Ryan (Antonio) did well in their roles. And Natalie Almeter, a young artist from the Youth Opera, was a charming if occasionally tremulous Barbarina.

There are wonderful moments in this production, but there are also too many misinterpretations of what Mozart is all about: nuance, subtlety, refinement and restraint. It was opening night, so that may have added to the driven tempi and competitively loud singing. File down the rough edges and add a modicum of finesse, and you’ll have a brilliant production.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Kara Shay Thomson is ‘Tosca’

February 12th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 8, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

There’s a story that purports to be true about “Tosca.” At the turn of the 20th century, at a performance at the Met, the general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, managed to forget to hire the soldiers who are supposed to shoot Mario Cavaradossi in the last act. He heard there were several students from Columbia University in the audience and, assuming they were probably smart and could follow directions, he rounded them up, put them in costume and told them all they had to do was “shoot the lead.” The students astutely assumed “the lead” was Tosca. After all, the opera was named after her. So, instead of killing the tenor, they shot the soprano.

When Puccini named his opera “Tosca,” he did it because Floria Tosca is the very essence of the melodrama. At this season’s Sarasota Opera production, Kara Shay Thomson’s rendition of the title role proves the point. She is Tosca.

From the moment she sings her first notes, “Mario, Mario, Mario,” and sweeps into the magnificent church, to her dazzling “Vissi d’arte,” the night is hers. Her even, huge and beautiful soprano even outshines David P. Gordon’s glorious interior of Sant’Andrea della Valle in the first act, the majestic study of the evil Scarpia in his Farnese Palace in the second and the glistening stars and unfolding of dawn stunningly hanging over the parapets of the Castel Sant’Angelo in the last act.

Tosca is a great singer in Rome. She’s beautiful, glamorous and talented. But she’s also filled with an unreasoning jealousy. Her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, may be a talented artist, but he also manages to get himself in hot water without much effort. He sees a beautiful woman praying at the church, and he paints her face into his mural, arousing Tosca’s suspicions. He helps a political prisoner, sung with passion by Young Bok Kim, and finds himself thrown into prison, tortured and, eventually, put before a firing squad.

Tenor Rafael Davila, who’s sung numerous roles with Sarasota Opera and is now a leading tenor in many major houses, just keeps getting better. His Cavaradossi is both heroic and melancholy. And his voice, especially the top, positively shines.

And then there’s the evil Scarpia, who is a baron in charge of the police. Scarpia is, without a doubt, one of the baddest baddies in opera. A sadist, murderer and, probably, rapist, he’s not a nice guy. Of course he wants Tosca, and he gets off on having her primarily because she doesn’t want him. Cavaradossi becomes his wedge; his way of getting to her without making nice.

Mark Walters was the elegant Baron Scarpia on opening night. (The role will be sung later in the run by Todd Thomas.) Walters’ voice is warm, round, rich and big, but it’s a little too beautiful for Scarpia. Both his singing and his characterization lack that overriding edge that makes you fear Scarpia, even if you’re sitting in the last row of the opera house. He was just a little too refined to be Scarpia, and, even though his words struck terror in our hearts, his voice and demeanor were just a shade too beautiful.

Puccini also triumphs in this “Tosca.” A great man of the theater, there’s not a note or chord of this opera that doesn’t mean something. In the second act, when Tosca has managed to defeat (kill) Scarpia, every musical accent has a stage command: chord, see the knife. Chord, pick up the knife. Chord, stab Scarpia. Chord, wipe the blood off your hands. Chord, place candlesticks around the body. Chord (drumroll), put the crucifix on his chest. It’s brilliant writing. And stage director Martha Collins made sure every one of Puccini’s directions was realized seamlessly.

Conductor Victor DeRenzi and his orchestral forces reinforced the drama onstage just as Puccini directed. The excellence of the cello quartet followed by the haunting sound of the clarinet would be hard to surpass in the last act as Davila sang “E lucevan le stelle” with great passion and warmth.

This “Tosca” belongs, vocally and dramatically, to Tosca. But it’s also a true ensemble piece, and, no matter how many times you’ve seen the work, this production deserves another visit.

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Review: Transformed orchestra, transforming concert

February 12th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 1, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

“Enigma” was the title of the Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks series this past weekend but, aside from the program featuring Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” there was nothing perplexing about it.

Opening with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” we heard a sonorous Sarasota Orchestra playing music that is sheer simplicity embodying sophistication. Principal percussionist George Nickson began the work with the sound of a distant chime, a church bell, tolling a mournful death knell somewhere over the hill, that slowly came closer and closer while the strings of the orchestra played a simple downward minor scale. The sophistication came in the tempos each section played for this motif: the violins, for example, playing faster while the lower strings took up the toll at a much slower pace, enabling dissonances and resolutions that made ethereal colors, finally ending in a simple minor third.

Sounding a little like the opening of Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the Pärt’s difficulty is in sustaining the sound and keeping the energy. The Sarasota Orchestra, led by Estonian Music Director Anu Tali, maintained both with an intensity that was spine-shivering.

Beethoven’s grand Piano Concerto No. 4 followed with Stephen Hough (pronounced Huff), the award-winning, international pianist, leading the way with the composer’s opening proclamation of few notes on the piano, developed by the orchestra so that the work sounds more like a chamber piece than a full-fledged concerto. Duets were passed from full ensemble to soloist, and Hough and Tali seemed fully glued at the hip, following each other seamlessly through the performance.

Hough is a clean, clear player, and he brings both important inner voices and obvious melodies out in a lucid, forthright manner that’s also imbued with emotion. In the second movement, for example, there was a beautifully thoughtout duet between the pianist and the orchestra, with the pianist whispering the connective tissue between the pronouncements of the orchestra and Tali finally bringing the soloist and ensemble together in one grand scheme.

The pianist occasionally took uncharacteristically grand pauses, especially in the cadenzas, but his intention seemed to be to emphasize the silences, making Beethoven’s monolithic qualities even more prominent. In fact, the cadenzas seemed to become gigantic sonatas in themselves, transforming the whole group — soloist, conductor and ensemble — into one organic body that was extremely satisfying.

But the great transformation came after intermission when Tali and the orchestra tackled Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” With each of the sections written in honor of the composer’s friends, some by name, others by initial, this is a particularly personal piece. But to sit, program ahead, trying to decipher which friend is which, surely defeats the purpose. It’s the music — the great, sonorous, warm, action-packed, otherworldly, funny and moving music — that leads us to imagine our own friends and hear their voices through time.
Yes, there are some friends who are closer than others, Nimrod — written as a glorious adagio — speaks to us with more understanding and weight than some of the others. So does the cello solo (beautifully performed by acting principal Jake Muzzy) leading into the richness of the lower strings and a luscious, lushness of sound from the entire ensemble.

The transitions between the variations are as tricky as those between the Beethoven cadenzas and tutti sections. But Tali, again, made them so continuous and unified it was, except for the personalities of the friends, difficult to know there was an actual segue.

The encore was Nimrod, repeated. But, taken out of context, it was just that much slower than it had been within the complete work and, at that tempo, there was an elasticity of sound that tore at our hearts. John Milton described the moment in his poem, “Il Penseroso”: ”There let the pealing organ blow, To the full voiced choir below, In service high, and anthems clear, As may with sweetness, through mine ear, Dissolve me into ecstasies, And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes.”

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MUSIC REVIEW: Soprano Mary Wilson captivates Sarasota

January 27th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 24, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Mary Wilson, a soprano who’s soloed from the Boston Baroque to the Hollywood Bowl, gave a recital in the home of Lee Dougherty Ross last week and proved why she’s in such demand. The concert, which also featured Dougherty Ross and Nancy Yost Olson as the collaborative pianists and Sarasota Orchestra violinist Margot Zarzycka, was presented as a prize that had been auctioned by Key Chorale and the Artist Series of Sarasota. And it was exactly what vocal chamber music — or any chamber music — should be: intimate, charming and beautifully done.

Sitting on everything from settees and couches to folding chairs and bar stools, the audience heard a wide range of music so well performed, the lack of programmatic theme just didn’t matter.

Bernstein’s “Simple Song,” from his “Mass,” is anything but simple. It needs a great vocal technique, beautiful voice and an ability to sing as if the music and words are being made up as the musicians go along. Wilson and Dougherty Ross aced it with a seemingly easy, jazzy inflection that set just the right mood for the afternoon.

Next on this eclectic menu of riches was the gorgeous “Erbarme dich” from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”
Yost Olson was the pianist for this work; Wilson and Zarzycka joined her. The sound from everyone was beautiful and compassionate, as Bach meant it to be, but the work was written for a mezzo, and, in the voice of a lyric soprano, no matter how good she may be, it lost the warmth and depth it needs.

It’s lovely to program a work because you love it, and the love certainly was shining through the performance. But, because of the lightness of Wilson’s voice, she (rightfully) needed to take the piece faster than it’s meant to be heard, and that meant the instruments simply didn’t match the weight of the words.

Just the opposite happened when Wilson and Yost Olson presented Schumann’s “Widmung,” one of the classics of the Lieder repertoire. It was absolute perfection, musically, vocally and emotionally. Elly Ameling couldn’t have done it better.

Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” althought Wilson and Yost Olson performed it beautifully, lacked an integrated interpretation, with the pianist sounding rather matter-of-fact and the soprano imbuing the music and words with the great understanding and drama that’s needed. This is easy to fix; talk about it, and settle on one version.

Midway through the program, the performers switched gears for instrumental chamber music: the exquisite “Meditation” from Massenet’s “Thais” and a fun, jazzy work by John Williams, “Por una Cabeza,” which was used in the film “Scent of a Woman.” Zarzycka has a very virtuosic, big, gutsy tone with technique to burn, and she put all her talents to good use in both pieces, always keeping in mind the style and energy of each work.

To end the afternoon, Wilson returned with Yost Olson for two French songs, the gloriously romantic “Ah, Chloris,” by Reynaldo Hahn, and “Apparition,” one of the songs from Debussy’s rarely performed “Chansons de Jeunesse.” One of the reasons that cycle is so seldom heard is that the songs are really hard to sing. The soprano nailed it. And, as if to say, “If you thought that was hard … ” she followed it by Mozart’s devilishly difficult concert aria, “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio,” which has not only coloratura that makes the “Queen of the Night” sound like a simple song, but leaps of way more than an octave that Mozart must of written with great glee, knowing sopranos for centuries to come would blanch at the thought of them. The result? Exquisite and dazzling.

Finally, the soprano — who is also a great speaker, charming and knows when to stop talking and start singing — tossed off Musetta’s aria from Puccini’s “La Boheme.” With Dougherty Ross back at the piano, the two simply won over the audience with their charisma and musical ability.

Look for Wilson, and, when you find her, get tickets. She’s terrific.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks III

January 13th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 11, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Every now and then we attend a concert that, like a perfect storm, all comes together to make perfectly glorious music. That happened this past weekend when the Sarasota Orchestra and Music Director Anu Tali offered a program of particularly disparate works by extremely contrasting composers and came out with a confluence of sounds that made us weep.

Richard Strauss’ intense “Death and Transfiguration” is rarely, if ever, heard as a curtain opener but Tali used it well, carefully building colors and textures in her orchestra so the musicians produced an organ-like sound with a depth of understanding that comes from both the heart and technical prowess. The opening of this work isn’t easy to understand. One friend said, “You have to be older to appreciate that opening,” and that made me realize why the first themes made me so uncomfortable: they deal with the concept of death and the fear of dying. But the transfiguration that comes after that is so uplifting, so spiritual, it’s hard not to believe things get better. With its “Superman” sound-alike theme, when played well, it’s almost impossible not to soar with it and the Sarasota Orchestra, sounding like a giant organ with shimmer and depth, spun legatos that seemed to go on forever.

One of the most important marks of a great orchestra is its ability to switch styles seamlessly. In this concert, the Sarasota Orchestra and Tali moved from century to century as if they were born to each one. From the passionate complexity of Richard Strauss, they moved with ease to the clarity and precision of Mozart.

Replacing the flugelhorn player, Sergei Nakariakov, who was unable to perform due to illness, the Orchestra was able to bring in the internationally renowned pianist Tamara Stefanovich, who has performed at festivals from Aldeburgh to Lucerne and worked with such renowned conductors as Pierre Boulez. Because the theme of this program was “In Love,” the fitting concerto was Mozart’s C Major, No. 21, K.467, often known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto because its slow movement was used in that film.

From the very opening notes we heard a clean, incisive orchestra providing the framework for Stefanovich, whose stylistic, clear and sensitive playing seemed a perfect match to the orchestral instrumentalists. It was a classic performance of a classic, with Tali using that long legato to make the orchestra and soloist sound like one organism. Even the pizzicato strings had long, singing lines. And the transitions between themes and those all-important silences were always perfect.

Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Fantasy Overture used to be played often in concert halls and on the radio, but it seems to have gone out of fashion over the last few decades. Perhaps it was too romantic for the late 1900s. We certainly can’t remember the last time we heard it at a live performance, so it was like welcoming back an old friend who’d stayed away too long. Tali built a beautiful tension throughout the piece, giving the horns, brass and percussion their head to build great fortissimos but always keeping them from becoming blatty and brash. Again, the transitions were flawless with a sort of mystical sound linking the majestic, romantic segments.

Finally, the orchestra opened those first magic notes from the Suite No. 2 of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe.” With washes of sound and color that made me feel like I’d slipped into “Green Mansions,” every musician in the orchestra turned into a soloist, showing a magnificent obsession with sound, quality and ability. This music is pure sound, pure nature, pure water. Yes, there’s a touch of Alexander Borodin’s Russia in the brass and percussion, but this piece is a vehicle for the wind section with the flute (Betsy Traba) leading us into a space that’s like a waterfall splashing into a pond.

The Sarasota Orchestra is playing with the confidence of a so-called destination orchestra, the kind of ensemble in which musicians kill to play. Anu Tali is leading the way and, forgive me the gush, we’re amazed at their prowess.

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MUSIC REVIEW: The Artist Series Concerts — Grieg Concert

January 11th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 11, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Edvard Grieg is to Norway what Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber are to the USA. But, even though the Norwegian composer was prolific enough to keep a festival of his music afloat, most people outside Norway are familiar with only a handful of his works: The Holberg Suite, “Peer Gynt,” some of his “Lyric Pieces” and, of course, the Grieg Piano Concerto.

In Norway, Grieg is a musical hero, worshipped by musicians from Bergen and Oslo to Trondheim. His musical image and imagination have spread far beyond the borders of his native land but his countrymen want his music — all of his music — to be better known around the world and one of the best approaches they’ve found has been by way of an Edvard Grieg Festival in Florida.

The Artist Series Concerts has, with the help of the Festival’s Director Dr. Sylvia Reynolds Eckes, jumped on this Scandinavian bandwagon and brought a special series to Sarasota with lectures, concerts, visits by Norwegian dignitaries and a musical smorgasbord of Grieg’s music that is so vast, it’s become a Sarasotan’s musical feast.

But the waters of Grieg run, not only deep, but also murky.

Take the printed program of the first concert Friday, Jan. 9. Featuring more than two dozen pieces of music, with print smaller than a Norwegian elf, every musical participant announced the program would not run in the printed order. In fact, there wasn’t one selection that followed the printed page, to the point that most of us were confounded and confused, wondering what it was we were hearing.

Worse, there was no intermission included on the printed page so, when the houselights came up half way through the program, murmurs of surprise and wonder ran through the Historic Asolo.

Still, with all the confusion and musical mystification caused by the program (why bother printing it if you don’t follow it?), there were some magical moments in the evening starting with baritone Alan Dunbar and pianist Gregory Martin, performing two sets of songs with great finesse and beauty. Very Lieder-like in their sound, one couldn’t help thinking of Schubert. Dunbar, whose voice is perfect for this kind of intimate song, created great realms of color within a small canvas and, by explaining what the texts were about (they were sung in Norwegian), managed to convey their meanings through the beauty and texture of his voice.

Martin, the pianist, stayed on stage for a set of piano pieces that were startlingly as impressionistic as they were romantic. They included the familiar “Goblins’ Bridal Procession at Vossevangen.” (If I hummed it, you’d know it.)

After the uncertain intermission, a small group of singers from Gloria Musicae took the stage under the direction of Joseph Holt, for a remarkable set of choral works scored for unaccompanied women’s voices. Because of the intricate harmonies landing on unisons among the voices, this is difficult music to sing but the women of Gloria Musicae were so polished and immaculate in their pitches, the music took on a gorgeous shimmer.

They were joined by the men of GM for a glistening performance of Grieg’s “Ave Maris Stella,” followed by some psalms for mixed chorus with baritone soloist Njal Sparbo.

Even with the programmatic confusion, it was an interesting evening and we’re grateful to the Artist Series Concerts for bringing us music that we probably would never hear under any other circumstances. A little Grieg goes a long way but, in retrospect, it does open one’s ears to a new language of music-making and we’re appreciative of that.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Perlman Music Program’s Celebration Concert

January 6th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 4, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

As we were fighting the crowds getting to the Sarasota Opera House for the Perlman Music Program’s Celebration Concert, I worried that, after 11 years of these performances, there might not be anything new to say. I thought, this could be same old, same old.

But music doesn’t work that way. When it’s well done it’s always fresh, always new. So, while the format was the same, the performances were full of beans, and I realized, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

As always, Toby and Itzhak Perlman started the concert by joining the nearly 40 so-called “student” (don’t let age fool you) string players in the chorus for a short program of choral music. Why do they have these brilliant violinists, violists and cellists sing? Because singing instills instrumentalists with the concept of breathing and phrasing, so important to all musicians. Remember, these young instrumentalists already have excellent, if not perfect, pitch. What they don’t necessarily have is beautiful vocal tone, the idea of breath control, a knowledge of foreign languages or an assured certain stage deportment, as important for fiddlers as singers.

Standing in front of an audience with poise and grace is an art in itself and, usually, singers — because they have to communicate not just pitches but also words, movement and audience connection — are schooled in that behavior earlier than instrumentalists. But instrumentalists need it, too. Music is all about communication, and the sooner musicians learn there’s more to it than technique, the better they’ll be as professional performers. It takes a package to be a great artist, and instrumentalists must learn the art of “singing,” just as singers must learn the art of using their voices as instruments. Enough said.

Patrick Romano, the PMP chorus master, is from Juilliard and is used to working with young voices. This year, with an “Agnus Dei” and “Dona Nobis Pacem” by Hummel, a gorgeous “Abendlied” by Rheinberger, a vibrant madrigal by Morley and the final choruses from Handel’s “Messiah,” Romano brought out immaculate pitch and excellent training from people who don’t really sing. Sure, the tone was rough. But standing in quartets, their consonants were together, vowels matched, and they made real music. In fact, the Morley was about as good as any madrigal group I’ve heard in years. And anyone who could take the finale of “Messiah” at the clip taken by Romano deserves to be given a great round of applause.

As quickly as the young instrumentalists hopped off their risers, the choral setting vanished and was replaced with orchestra chairs and stands so the string players could return for what they’re really trained to do.

This season, the PMP String Orchestra offered Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, which is scored for strings, keyboard (piano, in this case, played by the excellent John Root), flute and violin. Nicholas Johnson, who just got his master’s from Juilliard, was the flutist, and the violin solos were taken, phrase by phrase, by the individual members of the PMP violin section. You could hear the lessons they’d learned from singing because most of them breathed into their solos, an interesting followup and raison d’etre for the earlier part of the program.

Following the Bach were two movements from Verdi’s one and only String Quartet. I’ve known this work for years but liked it much more in this arrangement for string orchestra. It has more depth when played by multiple string instruments, and sections of the movements were not only operatic (think “Rigoletto”) but also echoed the more exposed sections of Verdi’s “Four Sacred Pieces,” not to mention the sheen of Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings.” Unlike the arrangement for string orchestra of, say, the Mendelssohn octet, this arrangement of the Verdi quartet worked well, and I’d love to get my hands on a recording of the whole thing in this setting. Of course, the sound that came from the Perlman group was the kind of string sound for which many a major orchestra would kill. And Perlman, himself, was no slouch in the conductor’s role; he held everything nicely together and made music rather than showpieces for individuals.

This year’s encore, or “dessert,” as Perlman put it, was a fun, enthusiastic performance of “Hoe Down,” from Copland’s “Rodeo.” And at the gala dinner following the performance we were treated not only to Perlman’s “Perl-tones” doing doo-wop but also to the whole chorus fervently flaunting the vocal version of Rossini’s Overture to “The Barber of Seville.” Watch out. These are professional string players to be reckoned with.

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