Music review: ‘Aida’

February 2nd, 2016Posted by admin

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Verdi’s ‘Aida’ Sails into Sarasota Opera House.

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 1, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Electricity was in the air as the Sarasota Opera opened the final season of its 28 year Verdi cycle. It could be felt on the operatic side of Pineapple Avenue, which had just been renamed “Verdi Place,” and it was positively palpable inside the house where a sold-out crowd, glittering and glowing with energy, was awaiting the Verdian masterwork that had so far eluded the Sarasota Opera’s stage.

It’s not that “Aida” has been too much for the world-class Sarasota Opera to take on before this. For the most part, “Aida” is a chamber opera dealing with only five major roles and Verdi’s masterful setting of still another father-daughter relationship. The Maestro had many such connections in his operas: Rigoletto and Gilda, Germont and his daughter (implied) in Traviata, and similar bonds in “Louisa Miller,” “Simon Boccanegra,” and La Forza del Destino,” to name just a few. But, with “Aida,” there are two of these bonds: The King of Egypt and his daughter, Amneris; and Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, and his daughter, Aida. Those four characters make up the meat of this opera, along with the object of both daughters’ affection, Radames, the hero-turned-traitor.

We lied. There may be only five lead characters and the opera may be about their loves and passions (for country, family and each other), but there’s also one scene – – the famous Triumphal Scene in the second half of Act II – – that has what seems like hoards of people processing across the stage. Animals aren’t needed (or called for except by tradition), but there are teeming crowds, guards, soldiers, dancers, trumpeters and entertainers traversing the stage and, even with the multi-million dollar renovation of the Opera House that enlarged the pit and did beautiful things to the house, itself, the stage has had to remain small for a company of this reputation.

That’s where the stagecraft of Director Stephanie Sundine, Scenic Director David P. Gordon and Lighting Designer Ken Yunker came in. Parading more people than have ever appeared in the company’s history, we were convinced the entire Egyptian population was lined up to the Tamiami Trail and marching across the stage, while four mighty trumpeters (playing long Herald Trumpets) were proclaiming their arrival with Verdi’s brilliant Triumphal March.

The superb chorus was a character in itself, giving us a feeling of being surrounded by sound even though they were all singing from the stage. Chorus Master Roger Bingaman deserves special praise for the glorious blend and fluidity of the ensemble which was made up of Sarasota Opera’s Studio Artists and Apprentices, including Mary-Hollis Hundley, who sang the off-stage voice of the Priestess. And choreographer Miro Magloire made magic with dancers who seemed to have all the space in the world in just a few feet center stage.

But that was only one exquisite scene of many. There was a magnificent full moon shining over the pyramids and the Nile in Act III. There were temples and halls reminiscent of the magnificent Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. There were luminescent gowns (Howard Tsvi Kaplan) for the women and golden threads glimmering in Amneris’ hair.

And there was the orchestra, led with brilliance and authority by Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi, that was as magnificent as all the pomp and ceremony up on the stage. The winds were particularly noteworthy, with some spectacular playing by the oboist and English horn in some of the chamber-like arias.

Speaking of arias, although “Aida” is through-composed, it is filled with some of Verdi’s most tuneful, impassioned pieces we know. And the five leads were truly great singers. Michelle Johnson is reminiscent of a young Leontyne Price with a large, sumptuous voice that has both sweetness and bite. I’d have liked a bit more “float” in her aria, “O patria mia,” on her high C, and her final A, which is marked “smorzando” (dying away). But it was still magnificent singing throughout.

Leann Sandel-Pantaleo is a truly great Amneris with a luxurious, huge sound throughout her range that, even in her jealous tirades, never loses its luster and beauty. Having sung at the Met and La Scala, she is a singer to watch although, judging from this performance, she’s already at the top of the list of greats for this role.

Jonathan Burton, who made a stentorian Calaf in Sarasota Opera’s “Turandot” a few years ago, was in excellent voice as Radames and his opening “Celeste Aida” was formidable as was his final duet with Aida in the tomb scene.

Marco Nistico was an admirable Amonasro, and, although he had a slightly shaky start, his vocalism smoothed out and his acting riveted attention on him even when he was hiding off stage getting the inside information on the Egyptian’s war plans. Jeffrey Beruan made an excellent King; Young Bok Kim, with his deep chested bass, was an impressive Ramfis; and Studio Artist, Matthew Vickers made an admirable impression in his brief role as a Messenger.

“Aida” is one of the first operas most of us see. Whether you’ve seen it once or a hundred times, this is a production worth attending. In every way, it’s worthy of the world-wide attention the Verdi Cycle is getting for the Sarasota Opera.

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Music review: Renée Fleming

January 30th, 2016Posted by admin

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The renowned soprano soloist performed with Sarasota Orchestra.

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 29, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

World renowned soloists aren’t new to Sarasota audiences, but it’s been a while since we’ve had a singer of Renée Fleming’s stature performing here. We’re very proud of our Sarasota Orchestra, and I find it amusing when visitors are surprised by the level of music-making our all-professional, full-time orchestra achieves.

I’ve kept my New York ears, and I’ll stand by my opinion that the Sarasota Orchestra is up there with many world class ensembles. It’s particularly notable, since this is not exactly a big city, but we certainly have a big-city ensemble. So when soprano Renée Fleming raved about the Orchestra and said, repeatedly, that it was a privilege to perform with those musicians, my heart sang.

But it was Fleming’s singing with the Orchestra that the full-to-bursting audience turned out to hear, and all I could wish was that we had a concert hall that could live up to the event. The Van Wezel is great for amplified performances but, when it comes to natural acoustics, it is not a very friendly place.

The classical pops program, under the direction of Anu Tali, ranged from Mozart and Barber to Tosti and Rodgers and Hammerstein, and was perfect for this kind of gala evening. There was a trio of overtures: Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra” (“The Thieving Magpie”), and Glinka’s “Russlan and Ludmilla.” All bright, fun overtures, Tali took them at exceptionally brisk paces that really showed the virtuosity of the players – – virtually breakneck tempi but exciting and played so well they had the audience cheering.

Of course, Fleming was the celebrity of the night and she outdid herself with charm, beauty of voice and stagecraft. Her “Porgi, amor,” the Countess’s first aria from “The Marriage of Figaro,” was sung with luminous phrasing, as was her “O mio babbino caro,” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.”

Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” the epic work for soprano and orchestra, with words by James Agee, is one of the most nostalgic pieces I know. Barber’s beautiful music underscores Agee’s description of an “evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street…people in pairs, not in a hurry…parents on porches…one is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me…here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.”

Tears can’t help but fall when you hear those words set to Barber’s wistful music and, with Fleming’s rich, opulent voice, it’s hard not to run your mascara. The problem was the Van Wezel’s acoustics, even with the new shell, didn’t allow most of us to hear all the words so, beautiful as the soprano’s sounds were, half the delight was lost. The shell helps large ensembles but, for soloists, it’s no friend at all.

Concertmaster Daniel Jordan was soloist in the gorgeous “Meditation” from Massenet’s “Thais,” and while we had no problem hearing the violinist’s immaculate intonation and sweet sound, some of the dynamics were muffled because of those darned acoustics. Still, it was a beautiful performance and Fleming seemed very impressed when she returned to the stage to sing.

And sing she did. But she was smart because, when she got to the more popular sections of the program – – selections from “The King and I,” and two of her three encores – – she wisely used a microphone.

Renée Fleming is not only an astute singer and musician, she’s also a charming personality and she absolutely had us in the palm of her hands throughout the evening. Teasing, playing, enchanting and captivating us with simple, direct conversations, we felt she was there to share with good friends, the music she loves. That’s entertainment.

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Music review: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

January 30th, 2016Posted by admin

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An eloquent concert — in program and execution

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 27, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

SCA’s Great Performers Series Brings Orpheus to Sarasota

The conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra paid a visit to Sarasota Tuesday evening with one of the most eloquent concerts, in program and execution, we’ve heard in a long time.

While Orpheus has been around for about 44 years, offering programs that span several centuries, the group – which has obviously changed personnel over the years – has maintained its high standards and buoyant musicality, along with an amazing sense of intimacy that draws its listeners onto the stage.

This program, opening with a joyous symphony by Haydn (the Number 1 in D), was followed by Mozart’s beloved D Minor Piano Concerto, K. 466. The Haydn gave Orpheus the chance to show off its impeccable intonation, beautifully crafted phrasing and a sense of dynamic colors many ensembles don’t manage with the aid of a conductor.

Mozart’s K. 466 was given an elegant reading by Khatia Buniatishvili. The 29 year old Georgian pianist wore a sleek black gown with a jeweled back cut down almost to the piano bench and, had it not been for her tasteful artistry and technique, this review might have turned into a discussion about fashion. But the moment Buniatishvili’s hands touched the keyboard her glamorous gown was forgotten and it was pure music from then on. The pianist and orchestra were breathtakingly together, as if they were all of one mind, and they played with a simplicity of style that was ravishing.

It was particularly fascinating to watch the interaction, subtle interaction, between the concertmaster and pianist as, with a bob of the head or a simple breath, they cued downbeats and tapered phrases as if they were members of a piano trio instead of a good-sized chamber orchestra.

Orpheus rotates its members so the concertmaster for one piece may be last stand for another and it works like a charm because these are all solo musicians who’ve come together to make chamber music.

In Anton Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, the ensemble’s use of a straight tone made the all-string ensemble sound like a single voice. It was clear, pure playing and it gave Arensky’s tribute a voice that, in parts, echoed Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, although the theme Arensky chose for this work was based on a Tchaikovsky song. It was fitting, then, that Orpheus’ strings became voices and sang this work with an enviable transparency.

The evening concluded with a new arrangement for orchestra by Paul Chihara of Rachmaninov’s Suite Number 2 for Two Pianos. Chihara’s orchestration seemed to take away the very specific sound of Rachmaninov but, with its brass, percussion and timpani added to the strings and winds of Orpheus, we had a different and attractive work that could stand on its own merits. Chihara dwelled a little too much on the sounds of the glockenspiel for my taste but, over-all, he made an arrangement that was both curious and attention-grabbing. The final movement was more successful with a great growl of the lower strings introducing the theme in a way that sounded more Russian than Hollywood.

Arrangement aside, this was a beautifully satisfying concert.

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Music review: Artist Series Concerts: ‘Les Amies’

January 26th, 2016Posted by admin

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The trio, consisting of Carol Winincenc, Cynthis Phelps and Nancy Allen, wowed audiences at the Historic Asolo Theatre.

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 24, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Les Amies almost named themselves WOW, to stand for Wonderful Overworked Women but, being such good friends, flutist Carol Wincenc, violist Cynthia Phelps and harpist Nancy Allen settled on Trio Les Amies. But a rose by any other name is still “Wow,” and this trio of stunning artists — Wincenc is an internationally renowned soloist and chamber musician, Phelps is principal violist of the New York Philharmonic and Allen is principal harp of that illustrious orchestra — wowed the audience this weekend at the Historic Asolo with a beautiful, mostly French program.

They opened with the gentle, hypnotic sounds of Ibert in his Deux Interludes, followed by the composer’s well-known “Entr’acte,” a rippling, exciting piece that showed off Les Amies’ virtuosity. That was followed by a short excursion to England for the Elegiac Trio by Sir Arnold Bax, a work that contrasted the richness of the viola with the mellowness of the flute, with the harp acting as a rippling buttress.

Ravel’s “Sonatine en Trio,” sounding very much like a retrograde “Mother Goose” melody (by the same composer, of course), was where the true colors of each instrument erupted, with Wincenc, Phelps and Allen demonstrating their individual instrument’s affects, yet – much to their musical credit – blending their sounds like a wash of impressionism. This piece was originally written for piano solo, but we learned, through the well-documented program notes that were introduced charmingly by the members of Les Amies (who speak as well as they play), that it was Carlos Salzedo, the brilliant harpist, pedagogue and harp designer, who’d arranged this work for trio. And, after seeing what Salzedo had done, Ravel is said to have asked, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?” (We have to add that in this work, there’s a precursor of a line from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” It would be interesting to know, since Gershwin’s opera came a few decades after the Ravel piece, whether that was a coincidence or a tip-of-the-musical-hat by Gershwin to Ravel.)

The Duo in C minor Opus 3, Number 1 by the classicist, Francois Devienne, may be French, but it was far from the tints and hues of the impressionistic music that would later come from the pens of Ravel, Faure and Debussy. Scored for flute and viola, it was a charming diversion that showed how music of the Impressionists was to change the musical world, forever.

It was perfectly followed by a group of pieces by Faure, starting with the beautiful and well-known song, “Apres un Reve,” transcribed for viola and harp. This, for me, was the one disappointment of the evening because, while the viola had the rich voice of a mezzo, the lifting from the piano part to the harp was jarring and percussive compared with the original. It wasn’t Allen’s fault. Her musicianship and understanding of the music were impeccable. It was the difference between the legato sound the piano can make in the partnership with the voice and the harp’s plucking, which just doesn’t fit the poetry of the song.

But Faure’s Impromptu for solo harp made up for it. Allen’s virtuosity bubbled from the instrument, harmonics sprouting from her fingers like angels’ wings and fantastic colors sparkling like a rainbow through this gorgeous work. And the “Morceau de concours” for flute and harp was exquisite.

The final work was Debussy’s Sonate for Flute, Alto et Harp, the piece, Allen explained, that brought Les Amies together in the first place. If one didn’t know better, one might think Debussy had written the Sonate for this trio of friends, because it’s like the three wonderful, overworked women who played it: jazzy, beautiful and looking ahead to making wonderful music and being even more overworked.

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Music Review: The Met in HD Presents ‘The Pearl Fishers’

January 20th, 2016Posted by admin

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The Met’s performances, streamed live into local theaters

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 17, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The Metropolitan Opera’s Live in High Definition performances have been taking place in movie houses around the world for 10 years, and we still don’t know how these presentations are affecting hometown opera companies, ticket sales or, for that matter, how they’ve influenced the Met itself.

But, speaking strictly as a consumer and patron – of the Met’s performances and those at Sarasota Opera – I’m mightily grateful for them.

First, the Met’s schedule of productions allows us to see operas we probably wouldn’t get to see elsewhere. “Tannhaüser,” “Lulu,” “La Donna Del Lago,” all three of Donizetti’s Tudor Queens operas, and “Elektra,” aren’t common fare, but they’re all part of the Met’s 2015-2016 season, some in HD. Their productions are different from what we get here in Sarasota, not necessarily better. And the HD lets us hear singers who are too costly to bring to a city of this size, no matter how good the company.

Interestingly, The Metropolitan Opera hasn’t presented Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” for about 100 years, but Sarasota Opera has offered it three times since 2000, making it an old friend to opera lovers from these parts.

My question is: Why on earth has the Met stayed away from this Bizet masterpiece for so long?

We have the great soprano, Diana Damrau, the impressive director, Penny Woolcock, and the great conductor Gianandrea Noseda to thank for its appearance at the Met. According to one of the insightful intermission interviews led by Saturday’s HD host, Patricia Racette, Damrau was speaking with General Manager Peter Gelb about a vehicle for the star soprano and it was she who suggested a new production of “The Pearl Fishers.”

As Leila, Damrau grows from a complex young girl with a past she’s abandoned in favor of being a Hindu priestess, into a tempestuous woman with a temper that makes Tosca, the Queen of the Night and Turandot seem like pussy cats. Her voice in this production is sublime, combining coloratura deftness with a rich, spinto-like warmth that makes you feel as if you’re in the theater, as well as the opera.

Matthew Polenzani, as Nadir, her lover, is passionate and sensitive as a singing actor. And he’s not afraid to sing pianissimo in order to color the words and music in ways rarely heard on any operatic stage. His soliloquy, “Je crois entendre encore,” was sung with a gentleness and fluidity of tone, including the high C, that was simply stunning.

Mariusz Kwiecien’s Zurga, the leader of the pearl-diving village, and dear friend of Nadir, has the difficult role of a man who wants to do the right thing but is pulled by honor, duty, love and jealousy. A baritone of great heights and depths, Kwiecien is a deft actor who is supremely believable no matter how often he changes his mind. His aria, and his duets with Damrau were spellbinding.

Tuneful and dramatic as all these well-known arias were, many in the audience were there to hear the famous duet of male bonding, “Au fond du temple saint,” and they weren’t disappointed. Polenzani and Kwiecien sang the poo out of it.

One thing you won’t see in most opera houses is pearl fishers diving hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the ocean, complete with sunshine shimmering down and air bubbles effervescing to the surface. Since this was live in our local cinema, we were shown just how all this magic was performed, from the dancers who were suspended in harnesses to the magical projections by 59 Productions. This was cinematic enchantment as much as it was grand opera. And, with popcorn in hand, it was spectacular theater.

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Music Review: Sarasota Orchestra: ‘Masterworks III’

January 12th, 2016Posted by admin

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‘Masterworks III’ brings winter dreams to Florida.

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 10, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

It’s hard to dream of winter when the air is balmy and the best beach in the country is just a few minutes’ drive. But the Sarasota Orchestra’s third Masterworks program of the season brought us close to the season, at least in our imaginations, with some hot music from northern climes.

Opening with “The Children of Captain Grant” Overture, a short piece by Isaak Dunayevsky, a Soviet composer who spent much of his time writing film music, along with operettas, Anu Tali led her Sarasota Orchestra with good, brisk tempos that showed off the musicians’ spirit and technical aplomb. Sounding like a popsy Tchaikovsky without the master’s unique voice, this Overture could have been a cutting-floor excerpt that never made it into Tchaikovsky’s opera, “Eugene Onegin.” But it was fun, zesty and a good opener for an all-Russian program.

Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto is one of my favorite works, and I must say, I’ve never heard it played this way before. My introduction to this great, expansive, romantic work came from an LP by the elusive but equally great pianist, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and it was love at first sound. (I was supposed to see the master in this concerto at Carnegie Hall a few years later but, typical for him, he cancelled at the last minute.)

The soloist with Tali and the Sarasota Orchestra was the Estonian pianist, Mihkel Poll, who is as tall as his hands are enormous. Rachmaninov is said to have had a stretch of more than an octave and a fifth, and I think Poll has the same reach. If he were a ballet dancer, he’d be known for his gigantic turn-out but, unfortunately, not his finesse.

Poll phrases without breathing, creating a rushed, murky sound, because of his overly heavy foot on the sustaining pedal. I wanted so much for his music to breathe, but it just never happened, and that made his interpretation lack cohesion and contour. Romanticism in any art, especially music, doesn’t mean eliminating clarity. Not to beat a dead horse with imagery, but I felt I was hearing, not Rachmaninov, but Debussy, lost in the Steppes of Central Russia.

His encore, a Tchaikovsky “Meditation,” was just as muddled, leaving me with the impression that Poll has a well-developed physical technique, but not much musicality or sense of phrasing. In the Rachmaninov, it was amazing that Tali and the Orchestra were able to work with him at all, much less make the Concerto into an integrated work with a mutually agreed upon sense of music making.

The second half of the program was a breath of musical fresh air. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number 1, subtitled “Winter Dreams,” is the kind of programmatic music that sends images flying through our heads, especially when it’s played with the brilliance and transparency Tali elicited from the Orchestra. Here we had crystalline phrases that were well-sculpted and beautifully crafted. The violas had a wonderfully rich, fat sound, and the triplets scampered through by the winds were perfectly stylistic for Tchaikovsky.

Best of all, Tali not only breathed with the phrases, she also reminded us that rests — silences — are as important and musical as the notes. This was a stirring, imaginative reading of a Tchaikovsky, who was finding his own, very distinctive voice, and it sent images of snowy sleigh rides and Pixar-animated skaters sending shimmering ice through the air.

The Orchestra concluded with the famous “Polonaise” from “Onegin” in a festive encore, in which Tali let the musicians run with the music (especially those great horns) and make phrases that sang like an opera.

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Music review: Perlman Music Program

January 4th, 2016Posted by admin

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Perlman Music Program celebrates its 12th year on the Suncoast.

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 3, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

It’s hard to believe the Perlman Music Program has been weaving its musical magic for 12 years and, as we were entering the Sarasota Opera House to hear another of its Celebration Concerts, “Same Old, Same Old,” was running through my mind. After all, how long can musicians, even great ones like Itzhak Perlman, churn out exciting, fresh performances?

It seems that’s not a problem for Itzhak, his wife Toby (the heart and soul of the program) and the multitude of talented young students they bring with them every Christmas and New Year holiday to study, rehearse, perform and share their great gifts with all of us. The format for the Celebration Concert remains the same: a choral performance by all the kids and faculty followed by the nitty-gritty of it all – a concert featuring the string orchestra made up of the youngsters and conducted by the Master, himself.

This year, although the construct was the same, there was something different, something freshened, something even more inspiring, chasing away “Same Old, Same Old,” and making it all new, again.

First of all, Patrick Romano, the Chorus Master the Program brings down from the Juilliard Pre-College division, has started turning the young instrumentalists into a good sounding choir. We all acknowledge these kids (and their mentors) aren’t singers. But they’re great musicians; musicians who can learn a lot about their violins, violas and cellos by using their internal, God-given instruments. Learning how to sing with your voice helps give you a singing sound on the instrument you hold in your hands. Phrasing, breathing, communicating are all important aspects of playing an instrument and, when done properly, with good training, nothing teaches musicians how to sing with their instruments better than singing.

Their excerpts from “Messiah” and the bouncy “Laudamus Te” from the Poulenc “Gloria” were rough but, except for one misplaced high Ab on a final “Laudamus te,” very much in tune and very musical. Gyorgy Orban’s exciting “Daemon Irrepit Callidus,” which is an uncanny reminder of Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” was thrilling. But Brahms’ “Waldesnacht” was downright gorgeous, sounding as good as any chorus on the professional circuit.

Then came the instrumental part of the concert and, this year, the program had more meat to it, starting with Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings,” a lush, emotional work with a heart-rending Largo that pulled the strings on the stage into the strings of our hearts.

I almost always prefer the original versions of chamber works, but the first two movements of Debussy’s String Quartet had even more color and texture (especially with the addition of a trio of string basses) in the string orchestra version and Mr. Perlman, leading without over-conducting, made beautiful music with his musicians.

For me, the most satisfying piece was the Bach “Chaconne” arranged for string orchestra by Hideo Saito, the 20th century cellist, lecturer, conductor and teacher of the illustrious conductor, Seiji Ozawa. It was a performance that would have made Leopold Stokowski, who brought us so many great Bach transcriptions, proud, with Saito, Perlman and the PMP String Orchestra bringing an organic, organ-like sound that was romantic but true to the great Baroque tradition that Bach built with such genius.

The PMP Strings, under the direction of Itzhak Perlman with Toby Perlman’s love of talent and kids overseeing everything, is a miracle of the Sarasota area. May they grace us with their gifts for dozens of years to come.

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Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks II

December 8th, 2015Posted by admin

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A world premiere at the Sarasota Orchestra

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: December 6, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

If you’re a football fan and pay attention to half-time entertainment, you’ve probably heard music by Jerry Bilik. The American composer seems to have written more marches than Sousa and, in his spare time, he’s also composed much of the music for Disney on Ice. Bilik, who now lives in Sarasota, has turned his hand to the classical side of music writing and his “Symphony in M-L” had its premiere at the Van Wezel on the Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks II series, under the direction of guest conductor, Perry So.

The “M-L” in the symphony’s title stands for “Modus Lascivus,” a row of notes that follow one of the ancient modal scales (think white notes, only, on the piano) that was thought to be lascivious in the olden days. But there’s nothing lewd about this work. In fact, unless you know the basis for its construction (and even if you do), you won’t really hear the M-L scale. What does come across is a propulsive, percussive work in three movements that is bi-tonal, colorful and very reminiscent of music by Bernstein, Copland, Gould and even Beethoven. Hey – if you’re going to pay homage to composers, you might as well use the best.

The outer movements are extremely rhythmic with great blasts of brass, while the middle movement, marked Andante, is gentle, ethereal and has the mystic aura of an Avatar-type movie. The Sarasota Orchestra, conducted by Perry So, seemed to nail the perpetual motion of much of the piece, giving us a rousing first hearing that was both accessible and striking.

The Sibelius Violin Concerto is a sensual, hot-blooded, virtuosic work that leads both the soloist and the orchestra on a sonorous soundscape that’s become a staple in the violin repertory. Leila Josefowicz was the soloist with the Orchestra and, after a promising start in which she built a beautiful crescendo in her opening line, the violinist seemed to lose her sense of tone and pitch, leaving us with a feeling that she was working exceptionally hard and making very little of the piece.

Josefowicz seemed to press too hard on the strings and, the harder she dug in, the less tone she gave, as the pitch slipped and her runs became messy and inconsistent. Perhaps it was an off day. Or maybe she needed to rework the piece so it was more in her fingers. Whatever the reason, there was little the Orchestra and So could do to clean up her problematic performance.

Fortunately, Beethoven’s “Eroica,” the massive and music-changing Symphony Number 3, saved the day and the second half of the program was a breath of freshness and excellent playing. I prefer the opening movement to be a little less fast but So had a good model in mind, working with slim vibratos from the strings and a Classical sense of style that could have been attributed to late Mozart or even earlier Beethoven.

The Funeral March (second movement) was properly mournful and heartrending, while the final two movements had the tension and organ-like tones that wrung richness from the Orchestra, which was reseated for this symphony, with the strings split, downstage right and left, cellos in the middle and basses upstage right.

Perry So is a dynamic young conductor with much to offer an orchestra. His beat is clear, he doesn’t over-conduct, he’s an excellent accompanist, he breathes with his phrases, and he’s able to bring the best out of his musicians. These traits were most evident in the Sibelius “Valse Triste,” which served as the concert’s encore. Here we heard the versatility of this excellent ensemble, taking them from a whisper of a pianissimo to large, never forced and beautiful fortes. It will be interesting to follow his career.

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Music review: Gloria Musicae

December 8th, 2015Posted by admin

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Gloria Musicae Singers Present a Glorious Christmas

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: December 6, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Camille Saint-Saëns was a fairly prolific composer and many of his works, from his Organ Symphony to his opera, “Samson and Delilah,” have become staples of the repertoire. Not so with his Christmas Oratorio, which is done only occasionally and, while there are a few lovely moments in it – including some touching solos and one or two exquisite segments underscored by a celestial harp – it’s not his greatest work.

That said, the Gloria Musicae Singers and Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Joseph Holt, offered it at the ensemble’s “Glorious Christmas” program at First United Methodist Church. The five soloists (soprano Johanna Fincher, mezzos Robyn Rocklein and Alix Faulhaber, tenor Adam Bielamowicz and baritone Christopher Holloway), had a good sense of the music and style, and the chamber orchestra (made up of several members of the Sarasota Orchestra, including concertmaster Daniel Jordan) lent a warm, sonorous tone that made this Oratorio an agreeable reminder of the pastoral side of the Christmas celebration.

The program opened with the Singers processing down the center aisle of the church singing “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” accompanied by hand bells that gave their sound an unearthly and mysterious sense of beauty.

The second half of the program juxtaposed Mendelssohn’s magnificent choral cantata, “Vom Himmel hoch,” in which the composer took his love of music by Bach and incorporated the Baroque style into his own larger, more romantic forces, with the tenderness of Franz Gruber’s “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!” It was in this beautifully designed contrast that the Gloria Musicae Singers’s tasteful and elegant sound came to full fruition.

The Mendelssohn is a broad, beautifully constructed work and the chorus, consisting of only about 30 professional singers, sounded rich, strong, sensitive and very beautiful, never over-singing and always paying attention to the style of the music. Holt sculpted their sound so the choral segments were in just the right proportion to the orchestra, bringing a richness and excellence to this particularly excellent music.

Going from the opulent final chorus of the Mendelssohn, “Lob Her seit Gott im Hoechsten Thron,” to the gentleness of “Silent Night,” was a masterstroke of programming and, with the flickering candlelight in the church, it was mesmerizing and poignant.

Christmas music can be bold as brass or gentle as a harp and flute. Gloria Musicae’s Glorious Christmas concert was more of the latter and the deftness of the musicians – singers and instrumentalists – brought out the sophistication and deep meaning music adds to the spirit of the holiday.

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Music review: Key Chorale

December 3rd, 2015Posted by admin

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Key Chorale Serves a Banquet of Voices

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 30, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Key Chorale, Sarasota’s “Symphonic Chorus,” under the direction of Joseph Caulkins, offered a program of primarily early music that shows how brilliant programming and excellent training can add up to a special evening of music. I had my doubts about the concert because Key Chorale is a large group – around 100 singers – and, except for a handful of paid section leaders, the singers are amateurs. Well, they may not have had the formal training and backgrounds professionals have, but they truly live up to the word, Amateur: one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, art or sport because of love. And these lovers of the vocal art really came through in this concert.

But they had another strike against them before they even opened their mouths. We’ve found, through study and practice, that music of the 16th and 17th centuries is now thought to have been written for small numbers of musicians. Late 20th and early 21st century practice tells us that the Monteverdi “Vespers of 1610,” for example, should be sung by only one or two voices on a part. Same with the music of Giovanni Gabrieli, Heinrich Schutz and Michael Praetorius.

Key Chorale and Caulkins proved that any size chorus, large or small, if properly trained and rehearsed, can pull off gorgeous, stylistic readings of this great music. Take the Monteverdi, Schutz and Gabrieli works on this well thought-out program. These composers wrote, not only for the musical forces they had on hand, they also wrote for the great spaces in which the works were performed. It was the early version of the modern surround sound, with brass, strings and voices stationed in various parts of the cathedrals and churches so the listeners would feel as if they were in heaven, surrounded by choirs of angels.

Caulkins did that with his excellent soloists, starting with tenor Rob Davis, who has a large, colorful, clarion voice, standing in the rear of First United Methodist Church, to open the Vespers. After that, we heard trumpets (Michael Dobrinski, Gregory Knudsen and Daniel Medelow), trombones (Brad Williams, Laurie Penpraze and Marc Morgan), and violinists (Daniel Jordan and Chung-Yon Hong) coming at us from various parts of the church, dizzying us with sounds ranging from mysterious to divine. He also positioned some of his soloists in various parts of the church – a quartet in the balcony, singing antiphonally with the large choir on the stage, and mezzo Amy Jo Connours, who seems to go from a Gabrieli boy-alto sound to jazz and gospel with the ease of a chameleon – so we were always looking around, trying to find the source of the magic coming at us from all sides.

Organist Nancy Yost Olson, stayed at her instrument, stage left, but played with great support and clarity.

This is not easy music to sing. Its change of meters and tempos can easily stump a conductor but Caulkins was wise enough to conduct many of the triple meters in one, making long, sweeping, arched phrases that really made music. Hardest of all was a group of 16th century carols in contemporary arrangements, including a fun setting by Mack Wilberg (of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) of “Ding! Dong! Marrily on High,” and Brian Kay’s syncopated arrangement of “Gaudete,” which brought tenor Rob Davis back to us at the end with a voice that traveled with us through the doors.

Amateur, schmamateur. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir isn’t a paid group either, but they sing circles around the music they perform. Suddenly, Key Chorale is coming into its own and we have nothing but praise for them and their conductor.

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