June LeBell shares highlights of her career at charity luncheon

April 11th, 2016Posted by admin

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Front row, from left: Shirley Taradash, June LeBell, Edward Alley LeBell. Back row, from left: Amy NaDell, Jody Jorgensen, Kathie Majerchin, Monika Templeman, Laurel Lynch, Janet Stickel and Jan Hasler.
COURTESY PHOTO

From the Herald-Tribune:

The Lakewood Ranch Women’s Club held a “From Opera Stage to Microphone” fundraiser March 2 in the Fete Ballroom at the Polo Grill.

The luncheon, which attracted about 100 people, raised money for the club’s adopted charities — SOLVE Maternity Homes, Hope Family Services and SMART Riding Therapies. The featured speaker was June LeBell, an award-winning broadcaster, music critic, singer, author and chef.

LeBell, who hosts “June LeBell’s Musical Conversations” on WSMR-FM, shared highlights of her career and was recently honored by the Broadcasters Club of Florida with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

LeBell attended the High School of Music and Art and Mannes College of Music in New York City and the Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. She also was a student of acclaimed soprano Adele Addison.

After a singing career, LeBell entered broadcasting in 1973 at WQXR in New York City, where she produced, wrote and hosted for 30 years. She interviewed hundreds of musical celebrities to include in her cookbook, “Kitchen Classics from the Philharmonic.”

The ladies were particularly fascinated with the wonderful personal stories that Lebell shared about the creation of her classical music-themed cookbook. With 50 great illustrations by Al Hirschfeld, and 150 terrific recipes from people affiliated with the NY Philharmonic in its first 150 years — from Toscanini to Pavarotti– and short, pithy text about how these great performers ate before, during and after a concert, their favorite restaurants and, just for fun, music to listen to (complete with record or CD number) while preparing or eating the delectable dish.

She also warned that some of these are really bad puns — a chopped chicken liver recipe is set to music by Frederic CHOPPIN. The recipes were given to LeBell by classical music celebrities on her daily cooking show on WQXR in New York City. They were each tested and tasted for quality, ease of preparation and proper measurements and she assured us there are absolutely no “poisonous” recipes in this excellent cookbook.

LeBell and her husband Edward Alley live in Sarasota. She said they enjoy living in Sarasota because it is a cultural treasure that rivals New York City, with the added benefit of year round sunshine and great beaches.

— Submitted by Monika Templeman

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Music review: ‘Cello Time’

April 25th, 2016Posted by admin

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Sarasota Orchestra’s ‘Cello Time’ spanned four centuries and more cellos than you can shake a bow at.

 

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

It’s not every day we have the chance to hear a concert centered around the cello. But last week, the Sarasota Orchestra’s Chamber Soiree Series offered a program called “Cello Time” and the packed house (we couldn’t find an empty seat anywhere) got to hear music that not only featured the mellow cello, but also spanned four centuries and more cellos than you could shake a bow at.

Eight cellists (Jake Muzzy, Chrstopher Schnell, Isabelle Besancon, Chizuko Matsusaka, Barney Culver, Nadine Trudel , Betsy Isaak and Troy Chang) with percussionist Jeff Ridgeway, tackled Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” a work that’s been heard in numerous films and has been scored for a variety of instruments from string orchestra to, well, eight cellos and percussion. It’s basically what I call “meditation music;” trance-like and mesmerizing. It was beautifully played with all the musicians, from those playing the drone-like bottom to the ethereal harmonics, with a spellbinding sculpting of dynamics that was both musical and scientific in its approach.

Before cellist Christopher Schnell laid into Bach’s Cello Suite Number 6 in D, he told us that, like Ricky Ricardo, he had some “s’plainin’ to do.” With that, he showed us an early cello, known as a Violincello Piccolo, a replica of a 1722 English instrument that uses gut strings, tunes the “A” to a lower pitch than the one we use today (415 as opposed to the modern 440), has no end-pin but, rather, sits on a box and has not four but five strings. The proof was in the performance which had a softer, more muffled sound instead of the brighter tone we’re used to hearing from modern cellos.

Bach wrote this D Major Suite specifically for this kind of instrument, and since it’s designed for a solo cello (no keyboard), the genius of the composer was to fill in the chords on the single instrument. Like the Pärt, but coming from a much earlier time, it’s mesmerizing, and Schnell, who must have had a difficult time switching from his modern cello to a smaller one with five strings, overcame the travails of the tuning to give us a compelling and hypnotic performance.

The intermissionless concert concluded with Haydn’s C Major Cello Concerto performed by Jake Muzzy with a small Sarasota Orchestra ensemble led by violinist Christopher Takeda. It was almost jolting to hear the “A” back up to 440 and, I have to admit, somewhat cheering. On top of the brightness of the Haydn compared with the Bach, we were also reminded of the cello sound we’ve grown accustomed to hearing: rich, warm and vibrant, with metal strings. And Muzzy, who really digs into his instrument, gave us a well-rounded performance that was both absorbing and stylistic.

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Music review: Curtis Institute of Music

April 18th, 2016Posted by admin

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A beautiful performance, but lacking in emotion.

 

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

If sheer beauty of voice were the most important part of a vocal recital, mezzo soprano Lauren Eberwein would be one of the world’s great young performers. She has one of the finest instruments I’ve heard in a long time, and her long, legato lines are spectacularly beautiful. She also puts together a fine program that juxtaposes moods and sentiments with grace and intelligence. And she seems to be an excellent musician with a fine sense of pitch and clarity within her large vocal range.

In her program at Holley Hall, presented by the Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota this weekend, in cooperation with Curtis on Tour, the problem was that everything sounded the same. There was very little color to her voice, and she didn’t seem to know or convey what she was singing about. The entire second half of Eberwein’s program was devoted to great songs in English, presumably her native language. We could understand every word; her diction and enunciation were flawless. But there was no meaning to what she sang. It was cold.

Take Copland’s “Why do they shut me out of Heaven,” one of the most complex of the composer’s set of Emily Dickinson Songs. The words, “Don’t shut the door. Don’t shut the door,” should shatter your very soul, but from Eberwein’s mouth, they were simply beautiful, not explosive. The same thing happened with Bolcom’s “Black Max.” This is a sardonic but terrifying song — as frightening as its title sounds. But the mezzo sang it as if it were a love song. Only Ned Rorem’s “Alleluia” had some guts but still lacked the joy of that one word.

“Losing My Mind,” the searing, devastating song from Sondheim’s “Follies,” should rip apart both the singer and the listener, but again, it was merely beautiful. And for some reason, Eberwein and her even more bewildering pianist, Mikael Eliasen, changed the ending, omitted the modulation and turned it into a pleasant ballad.

Eliasen is the head of the vocal department at the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the greatest conservatories in the world. He was also music director of the San Francisco Opera Center and has a list of important musical credits to his name. Yet he played without any apparent comprehension of the words Eberwein was singing. His tempos were so slow it was amazing she could keep her beautiful line. Bernstein’s gorgeous “Simple Song,” and Kurt Weill’s biting “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” lacked the intensity and understanding that makes them more than pretty tunes.

The program opened with Haydn’s Cantata, “Arianna a Naxos,” a long, mostly recitative-like work that begs for interpretation but received only pretty sounds from the singer and percussive loudness from the pianist. The first half ended with Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs, which are fiery and flashy but, from Eberwein and Eliasen, sounded more like Haydn than Falla.

The final group on the program was what I call a quartet of tear-jerkers, ending with Rodgers’ “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a performance of this without shedding at least a few tears, until this recital, that is.

It’s amazing. Lauren Eberwein has one of the most beautiful, well-trained voices I know. But there’s so much more to singing than producing pretty sounds. And in recitals, it’s the words that empower the music. Some really good coaching would do this mezzo a world of good.

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Music review: La Musica Program III

April 12th, 2016Posted by admin

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La Musica offers a satisfying afternoon of chamber music

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: April 11, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

La Musica’s third program of its 30th anniversary season at the Sarasota Opera House Sunday was one of the most satisfying afternoons of chamber music we’ve heard on this series in a long time. There was only one small problem: in two of the three pieces, the musicians weren’t well matched.

For example, in the opening Kodaly Duo for Violin and Cello, the cellist, JeongHyuon Lee, had a big, warm, resonant sound, while the violinist, Claudio Cruz, had a sweet but comparatively small and introspective way of playing. And, in the closing Brahms Piano Quartet in A, the pianist Derek Han, and the violinist Cecilia Ziano each played with full, muscular tones, while violist Bruno Giuranna and cellist Antonio Meneses were both more reticent and delicate. Mismatched but not enough to spoil the over-all musicality of the concert.

It’s interesting to think of a new work as the lynchpin of a concert featuring older, well-known masters like Kodaly and Brahms but Jerry Bilik, a name known well in Sarasota (we just heard one of his pieces played by the Sarasota Orchestra), has a hit on his hands with his Quintet for Piano and Strings.

Played by violinist Federico Agostini, violist Giuranna, cellist Lee and bassist Scott Faulkner, it made a great first impression and, despite a few kinks that need to be worked out in the opening movement that seemed a bit disjointed and unsettled, the other three movements were inspired gems.

The second movement, marked Canzone, was stunningly romantic with colorful melodies and harmonic twists that were very 21st century concepts. The charming Minuetto was, like its tempo marking, dancelike and graceful. And the final Rondo, opening with a descending two-plus octave scale, was fun in its alternating three and four pattern, giving us measures of 11 beats like a big, slightly tipsy circle dance.

The grand ending was a sudden denouement bursting into “Happy Birthday,” a fitting finale for a work written for La Musica’s 30th anniversary season. (Bilik purposely called it his Opus 30.) It was such fun and so right, we can’t help but hope that future performances (of which there should be many), will call it “La Musica Piano Quintet,” an homage through this well-earned title.

Back to the opening Kodaly. The Hungarian composer’s Opus 7 is filled with folk-like melodies and rhythms but it’s also very impressionistic and colorful. As we said, Cruz and Lee were somewhat mismatched with Lee painting sounds from an abundantly colorful palette while Cruz was more muted and mellow in his moods. Still, it was an exciting reading that reminded us why we like this work so much. It’s also fun to hear other voices within the young Kodaly’s grasp, including allusions in the finale to Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending.” Who knows who influenced whom since both pieces were written in the same year but went unplayed for a while after. But Kodaly’s passage is very definitely a Hungarian bird without a trace of Britain anywhere near its feathers.

The Brahms, an old and dear friend, was well played except for the aforementioned mismatch among the performers and a few problems with intonation in the Finale. Interestingly, it also brought strains of musical influences but here, they were all Brahmsian. The A Major Piano Quartet, Brahms’ Opus 26, is an early work but, if you listen carefully, you hear themes of great symphonies to come, especially the First and the Fourth. They’re dim but they’re there. And it was fun hearing them in their formative stages.

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Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks 7: ‘Legends’

April 4th, 2016Posted by admin

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Sarasota Orchestra closes its season with a legendary performance.

 

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

The Sarasota Orchestra called its Masterworks 7 concert, “Legends” and it was, indeed, legendary. With the entire second half devoted to the Legends of the “Lemminkäinen” Suite by Jean Sibelius, we took a trip through the dark, glacial, arctic myth of Lemminkäinen, a sort of Finnish version of Richard Strauss’ Til Eulenspiegel, without his merry pranks.

The best known of the four sections of this suite is the majestic “Swan of Tuonela,” played here with stately elegance by the solo English horn and principal cello, allowing us to reach into the silent song of the dying swan as thunderous ice floes threaten to break loose in the percussion.

In fact, the entire work is a romantic but frozen foreboding of death and tragedy but Sibelius, with his icy instrumentation, manages to remind us one can cavort even through bitter circumstances, especially if you’re the stuff of legends, as is our friend, Lemminkäinen. And Music Director Anu Tali drew the very best from the Sarasota Orchestra players so every note, every phrase had a meaning and place in this vast landscape of frozen woodlands. Outstanding among the outstanding players were English hornist Nicholas Arbolino and cellist Jake Muzzy, Concertmaster Daniel Jordan, violist Steven Laraia and horn and percussion sections that were impeccable.

The program opened with the charming “Bergensiana” by the Nordic composer Johan Halvorsen. Tonal, pretty, dancing and, at times rollicking, this was a good set-up for the rest of the program, showing that the north can produce music that’s not always filled with dread and foreboding. It also showed off several sections of the orchestra because parts of the work are very exposed: dangerous territory for instrumentalists that the Sarasota Orchestra carried off without any problems.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto Number 1 followed the Halvorsen and, in the Rubinstein-like hands of Finnish soloist Antti Siirala, we were treated to a blessed dose of romanticism without schmaltz. Siirala is an insightful, incisive pianist with a crystalline sound and a technique that allows him to be expressive rather than bombastic. The slow movement was sheer magic and the duet between principal bassoonist Fernando Traba and Siirala was breathtaking.

We were treated to two encores, one following the Chopin by the pianist, and one, at the conclusion of the concert, by the entire orchestra. Siirala offered a sensitive, captivatingly legato performance of a section of Schumann’s gorgeous “Davidsbündlertänze.” And, to conclude the entire concert, Anu Tali conducted the very first work she led in Sarasota, five years, Sibelius’ “Finlandia.” And what a difference five years make. The Sarasota Orchestra was good when Tali first took the podium. Now they’re great. And they know it.

They played “Finlandia” with the spirit of a group like the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic. We’re good and we want to share our talent with you. This isn’t a swaggering braggadocio. It’s the kind of confidence that comes from hard work and collaboration. It also comes from great leadership and Tali has certainly provided that since she first lifted her baton in Sarasota.

Like Jean Sibelius, who ends many of his works with a resounding Amen from final plagal cadences, we can only say, Amen to the Sarasota Orchestra. As we’ve asked before: What’s next?

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Music review: Sarasota Opera Verdi Cycle Grand Finale Concert

March 22nd, 2016Posted by admin

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Sarasota Opera closes historic Verdi Cycle with an impassioned performance.

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 21, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

It was a grand night for singing. In fact, it was one for the record books. Sunday night culminated 28 years of Sarasota Opera’s adventures through the Verdian looking glass; 28 years in which Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi became the only conductor in the world to have conducted every note Giuseppe Verdi wrote. And for this monumental endeavor, the Maestro, who has certainly earned that title, received a standing ovation before he even picked up his baton.

The sold-out audience at the Sarasota Opera House was feeling the excitement from the beginning, and the Sarasota Opera Orchestra fed that gusto with a fast-paced and exuberant performance of the “Aida” Overture, the one we normally don’t hear when the actual opera is performed.

Excerpts from “I Lombardi,” “Attila,” “Macbeth” and “Rigoletto” followed in the first half of the program, sung by some very excited and exciting stars of this past season, including Michelle Johnson and Marco Nistico, Jennifer Townshend, Heath Huberg, Young Bok Kim, Sean Anderson, Kara Shay Thomson, Kathleen Shelton and studio artists Matthew Vickers and Eric Lindsey.

Some of the singing on the first half of the evening was uneven, and some was spectacular. But this wasn’t a night to criticize. It was a night to rejoice in the sheer wonder of Verdi’s music and the intensity and passion with which it was presented. It was as if every singer and instrumentalist on stage had caught fire and something different, something special – called Giuseppe Verdi – had gotten into their skin and made them alive with emotion and eagerness. There were moments of over-singing, but that was the nature of this celebration, and even Verdi would have applauded the fire that exploded from the stage.

The second half of the concert opened with an electrifying performance of the Anvil Chorus and Song from Act II of “Il Trovatore,” featuring a riveting Tara Curtis as Azucena and an ensemble of gypsies whose sheer power could have split an anvil without a hammer. Kara Shay Thomson seemed much more comfortable as Amelia in “Un ballo in maschera” than she’d been earlier as Lady Macbeth, and her Riccardo, Jonathan Burton, was as stupendous as ever.

The Act III duet from “La forza del destino” featured Anderson with Michael Robert Hendrick, and Anderson reappeared as an appropriately malevolent Iago with Huberg and Apprentice Artist Lucas Levy as Roderigo, supported by the chorus in the famous “Brindisi” from “Otello.”

The whole evening, attended by luminaries from around the world, including the great, great, great grandchildren of Giuseppe Verdi, culminated in a blockbuster performance of the “Te Deum,” a massive chorus that’s part of Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces. This work normally starts with the men singing what sounds like a Gregorian-chant setting. But, here again, we got to hear a rarity: an introduction on the organ that leads into the acapella male chorus. It was very effective, and the resulting, gigantic outburst of “Sanctus,” from the eight-part chorus, was almost overwhelming.

We rarely review applause, but the enthusiasm from the multiple standing ovations was almost as intense as the music that provoked it. It went on for some 20 minutes, interspersed with multiple encores, including the great chorus, “Va pensiero,” and the final fugue from “Falstaff.” Still, the audience wouldn’t let DeRenzi go, so a second round of “Va pensiero” was called for, this time with the entire audience joining in as a paean to the mastermind who started it all, Victor DeRenzi-Verdi.

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Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks 6

March 14th, 2016Posted by admin

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‘Our Town’ delights with a beautifully presented, exciting performance.

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 13, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Anu Tali was back in our town this past weekend for a series of sold-out concerts titled, “Our Town,” after Aaron Copland’s film score based on the Thornton Wilder play. Although neither the Brahms Violin Concerto nor the Dvorak Symphony Number 8 that followed the Copland had much to do with Copland’s reminiscent setting, both works are evocations of their composers’ homelands so, if you stretched your imagination a bit, you could see an over-all musical theme emerge.

The Copland is a pastoral piece of American nostalgia, painting a picture of almost any small, sleepy town, including early 20th century Sarasota. We all have our tales of dying and wistfulness when we think of what may have been a simpler time but still hold the same feelings we bring with us today. The opening of Copland’s melancholy theme is brought to life by the ringing bell-tones of a glockenspiel which, with the beautiful wind, brass and string choirs in the Sarasota Orchestra, brought stars into an otherwise dimly lit sky. Tali and the players had just the right touch of American sounds and the result was sublime and serene.

Brahms’ Violin Concerto is anything but serene but it’s certainly sublime music. Guy Braunstein, an Israeli violinist who was the youngest player ever to be named concertmaster of the illustrious Berlin Philharmonic, but left that post to pursue a solo career, was soloist with the Sarasota Orchestra and his experience as leader with Berlin, gave him wonderful body language that sent excellent messages to both Tali and the other instrumentalists, keeping them together and working as one organism.

It was a beautifully presented performance but, as I’ve said in the past, I like my Brahms with more bite. I like real rhythmic definition and punctuation in this Concerto, especially in the outer movements so Brahms’ accented rhythms are more Germanic and vertical than lyrical. The middle movement, marked Adagio, therefore, came off much more stylistically correct than the opening and closing Allegros but it was a fine performance, nonetheless, particularly when the soloist stepped aside for the gorgeous oboe solo in the slow movement.

Dvorak’s Symphony Number 8, on the other hand, had all the stylistic pizazz of the Czech countryside and the orchestra sounded at its best in this repertoire, brimming with gorgeous choirs of strings, winds and brass that seemed to come straight out of Dvorak’s homeland. It was folksy, Slavic and exciting with some great solo playing coming from principal players, particularly concertmaster Dan Jordan, Betsy Traba (flute), Fernando Traba (bassoon), and clarinetist Bharat Chandra.

It was great fun watching Braunstein taking a busman’s holiday playing in the second violin section in the Dvorak. (This is not without precedent. Itzhak Perlman sat in with the New York Philharmonic after one of his solo turns.) The orchestra members seemed all a-twitter about having the soloist in their ranks, even taking a couple of selfies before the music started after intermission.

And it was exciting having not one, but two encores on the program beginning with Braunstein performing a rollicking rendition of Fritz Kreisler’s “Soldier’s March,” which he turned into a tipsy, slightly drunken novelty piece for his encore after his Brahms. And the whole orchestra offered a rousing rendering of Brahms’ tuneful and rhythmic Hungarian Dance Number 1, as the final encore.

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Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Chamber Concert: ‘Brass to Bassoon’

March 7th, 2016Posted by admin

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Orchestra musicians break into smaller ensembles for ‘Brass to Bassoon.’

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 6, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Members of the Sarasota Orchestra, an impressive group with an impressive season, broke into smaller chamber ensembles Sunday, March 6, in Holley Hall, for what was a somewhat lackluster program that lacked not just inspiration, but also the spot-on intonation they’ve had as a larger group with a conductor.

The program, titled “Brass to Bassoon,” opened with a short fanfare for a lot of brass players from Paul Dukas’ ballet, “La Peri” (The Flower of Immortality). The two-minute work, featuring three trumpets, four horns, two trombones, a bass trombone and tuba, had an early 20th century sound and, for its briefness and what it had to say, was much ado about not much. It was here that the pitch problems began, and they never quite worked themselves out for the rest of the program.

John Cheetham, whose works have been commissioned by ensembles from Atlanta to the Air Force, had, in his piece, “A Brass Menagerie,” probably the most interesting work on the program. Performed by trumpeters Michael Dobrinsky and Gregory Knudsen, hornist Laurence Solowey, trombonist Brad Williams and tuba player Jay Hunsberger, it was at times rhythmic, colorful and martial. Leading the way with octave jumps was the tuba, giving the other instruments a solid, scale-wise bassline on which to build very tonal, sometimes intricate melodies and fascinating rhythms.

This brash, brassy, fun piece was played well by all concerned but, at best, could be looked at only as an interesting piece, rather than one that would hold together a concert program.

For that, we looked towards Debussy’s well-known Trio Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Under normal circumstances, this would have been the palette-cleanser of the program but, for some reason, flutist Betsy Hudson Traba, violist Steven Laraia and harpist Cheryl Losey Feder, seemed as if they were each playing a different piece, and as a result, there was a lack of cohesiveness. The first movement had the most trouble, because the instruments weren’t in tune with each other. Things picked up a bit for the Interlude and Finale but, overall, it still lacked the blend and tonal unity needed to hold this piece together.

Vivaldi’s G Major Bassoon Concerto had its own pitch problems, primarily in the upper strings, but it had Fernando Traba as the soloist and his puckish way with his instrument, finally infused some personality into an otherwise ho-hum afternoon.

Playing with a good, solid sound and stylish ornaments, Traba seemed very at home with the Baroque style, taking some nice liberties with the tempos that, unfortunately, weren’t followed up by others in the ensemble, leaving the bassoon in one tempo and the other musicians in another.

Chamber music is very important to musicians because it gives them the opportunity to listen carefully to each other and learn to blend and meld with each other without the aid of a conductor. Perhaps this was a mid-season slump or the musicians were under-rehearsed for this program. One way or the other, it was not what we’ve grown to expect from these exceptional musicians.

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Passion, drama and patriotism in ‘The Battle of Legnano’

February 29th, 2016Posted by admin

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The Sarasota Opera opens the final opera of its Verdi Cycle with high-quality singing and drama.

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 28, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The Battle of Legnano is to Italy what the Battle of Bunker Hill and D-Day are to the United States: an important source of inspiration for victory. Although the original battle took place in 1176 between the Holy Roman Empire, led by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and the Lombard League, the enormous win for the Lombards at Legnano (outside of Milan), was a turning point in the history of Italy, and the Battle was so important to the nation’s unification in 1848, Garibaldi not only referred to the ancient battle, it also became part of the Italian National Anthem.

Something else happened in 1848. Giuseppe Verdi was writing his 14th opera, “La battaglia di Legnano,” and although many of the characters in his opera are fictional, the important reference to the battle, seven centuries earlier, became the impetus for this opera to be a paean to Italian history and unification.

Sarasota Opera was wise to hold this relatively early Verdi opus until this season in its enormous excursion through the Verdi archives, since the work calls for a colossal chorus, and this year, being the one they saved to present “Aida,” with its massive ensemble, made a perfect pairing.

The Sarasota Opera Chorus fills the house with a throbbing, vibrant sound that’s hard to match anywhere else. Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi and Chorus Master Roger L. Bingaman pull titanic waves from their singers, and the result is thrilling.

Although this is not one of Verdi’s greatest works, it deserves more productions than it gets, because there are some magnificent vehicles for the singers. It’s also prescient, because you hear the Verdi that’s to come.

While opera is about the music and singing, it’s also about the passion and drama, and “La battaglia di Legnano” has plenty. The unifying thread of the work is love of country. Long Live Italy (which wasn’t even in existence when the original battle took place) is the thought upper-most in every character’s mind throughout the opera. Next to God, Country. And next to country, honor, vows and love.

What we don’t see that often in early Verdi operas are evolving characters; people who have strong beliefs that are monolithic to start, but are actually capable of forgiveness and understanding. Those emotions are written into the score, and they were also carried out with care and clarity by the stage director of Sarasota Opera’s new production, Martha Collins. Every person on stage changes from an uncompromising force to one with compassion and understanding. In other words, they’re flesh-and-blood humans we can relate to.

In the pit, DeRenzi held his orchestra and both on and offstage musicians into a tight ensemble, spinning sounds that were electrifying and musical. Of course, the electricity was already in the air, because this was a special night — a night of climax to the company’s Verdi Cycle, and that, in itself, was exhilarating.

Ken Yunker’s lighting was suitably smoky and atmospheric, particularly in the interior scenes as they set off Jeffrey Dean’s scenic designs, with a nod to some of the early tapestries and paintings at the Ringling Museum.

Todd Thomas, as Rolando, the leader of the Milanese troops, almost stole the show. His rich, stirring voice combined, with fine acting, made him a leader and lover to be trusted, admired and followed. I say “almost,” only because the rest of the leading characters were just about as strong, vocally and dramatically.

Jennifer Black, as Lida, his wife, who loves him and the son he’s given her, but who also loves Arrigo, her former lover whom she thought dead, is a brilliant soprano with a cutting but beautiful voice and the air of a leader’s wife.

Martin Nusspaumer’s Arrigo, the warrior everyone thought had died in battle but who is very much alive and furious that Lida’s married another (even though that other man is his best friend and partner in battle), is a strong, vibrant tenor with a demeanor to match.

Young Bok Kim made an important and impressive (as always) appearance as Barbarossa (complete with red beard) and Harold Wilson was the Iago-like villain, Marcovaldo, who blows Lida’s cover and gives her secret love for Arrigo away in a couple of brief but pivotal scenes. Smaller roles were taken by studio artists with one, Tara Curtis, in the role of Imelda, Lida’s handmaid, standing out for excellent vocalism and acting.

There were moments of pitch discrepancies scattered throughout the opera by almost everyone on stage, except the remarkable chorus. But we’ll mark those up to opening-night jitters. And although it’s difficult to overcome the somewhat bulky plot with action that takes place primarily off stage, between the scenes, it’s worth it for the high quality singing and sound coming from stage and pit.

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Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks 5

February 22nd, 2016Posted by admin

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A world-class conductor leads Sarasota’s world-class orchestra.

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 21, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

There were 103 musicians making up the Sarasota Orchestra for its Masterworks V concert this past weekend. They were led by one of the most well-known conductors in the world, Neeme Järvi, who is not only a world class Maestro but also probably the most recorded conductor alive today, with some 500 recordings to his name. From Europe, Scandinavia and Russia to the United States and Canada, Järvi has made himself a reputation as one of the greats.

The program, an exciting one, featured three works that would be daunting for any major orchestra but Sarasota Orchestra played them with such fluidity, sonority and style, this concert pushed them over the edge to World Class. And I do not exaggerate.

Brahms’ “Tragic Overture” showed off the excellent balance between upper and lower strings from the first two crashing chords through the richness and depth the ensemble achieved throughout the piece. And it was the perfect opener for Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Piano Concerto Number 1, which opens with the same two resounding chords, albeit in a different key.

That pattern, along with many other allusions to Brahms (his First and Second Piano Concertos and the Fourth Symphony, along with references to Prokofiev and Rachmaninov in the finale), made this a somewhat derivative work but then, Stenhammer lived about the same time as those composers and it was refreshing to hear his Swedish take on late romanticism: lush, warm, passionate and very beautiful. A little like Brahms on Fiords.

The pianist Per Tengstand, did some beautiful playing in the piece, keeping the solo passages above the thick orchestration and joining in the tuttis, as they were written in the score.

Stenhammer is probably more familiar to classical music radio listeners than concert goers because the composer has been a staple of the radio archives for many years. Unfortunately, his music isn’t played all that often in concert halls and it deserves to be heard more often.

But the work that perked up everyone’s ears right from the outset was the symphonic poem, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” by Richard Strauss. There are few of us who don’t remember its impact in the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but there is much more to this astounding work than the opening measures. Like the composer’s “Rosenkavalier” and so many of his other pieces, this piece of music combines passion with bittersweet memories, intellect with soulfulness. And everywhere, there’s heart.

This is programmatic music, with allusions to Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, whose teachings were used by Nietzsche. But it’s the hearty, passionate music by Strauss that makes it the important work it is.

Neeme Järvi with little fanfare or movement, manages to elicit sounds from the orchestra we didn’t know they had in them, yet. The ensemble was rich and stylistically true to the composer. Järvi, throughout the concert but particularly in the Strauss, built long lines of tension, reaching climaxes at just the right points in the music.

There are many solos throughout the Strauss, from the opening organ (for once in tune with the orchestra, and just that much slightly higher in pitch to make it exciting rather than the let-down I felt in some of the old recordings), to the first and second chair players who made beautiful chamber music amid the grandeur of Strauss’ massive orchestration.

To round out the already substantial afternoon concert, Sarasota Orchestra and Järvi delivered a short work for strings (and timpani) by Sibelius that showed off the ensemble’s incredibly rich and organic sound, digging deep into glacial harmonies with precision and fervor.

We had a world-class conductor on the podium but, my friends, we now have a world-class orchestra in Sarasota. The question is, what do we do with them? They deserve to be heard by the rest of the music world through recordings and tours. And, here at home, they deserve a hall worthy of their remarkable gifts.

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