RIAF REVIEW: Vijay Iyer Trio

October 24th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: October 21, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

It’s been said that the Cutting Edge is the most overpopulated place on the planet. If that’s the case, the Ringling International Arts Festival must be positively teeming because, in the festival’s attempt to be different, they’re also provocative and, at times, downright inflammatory.

It was my ears that became inflamed last week while attending a performance by the Vijay Iyer Trio. Iyer, who seems to have won every major prize from a MacArthur Fellow to an Echo Award, which is the German Grammy for best international pianist, was even voted 2010 Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. So he is, presumably, doing something right. But, having heard him on two occasions — at RIAF last week, and at La Musica last season — for the life of me, I can’t figure out what.

Iyer, working this time with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, presented a program of jazzy, disconnected, repetitive pieces that all sounded pretty much the same, starting slowly, as if the group were tuning up, growing louder and louder, resolving to some inoffensive noodling, increasing again in intensity and, finally, coming to a conclusion. But that’s not what bothered me.

His repetitive rhythms and pounding intervals would make Philip Glass sound varied. Looking around at the audience, I saw several jazz heads nodding in what they thought was the beat. But it was a polyrhythmic beat so each head nodded to his or her own drummer (or bass player or pianist), giving the impression in the audience, as well as on stage, that everyone was disconnected and off in a world of his own.

This is the kind of music making that we heard in the 1960s and 1970s when the Me Generation of composers experimented with styles that didn’t last because they didn’t have any emotional connection with anyone. It’s the kind of music-making that may look good on paper (although much of this sounded improvised) but, when heard, forms only questions rather than a moving, expressive, affecting experience.

I say this as a musician whose ears felt assaulted rather than aroused, and whose heart was impassive and cold, instead of moved.

This is not to say the musicians weren’t talented. Iyer seems to be a virtuosic pianist who’s lost his way on the keyboard. I really couldn’t tell what bassist Crump was doing, except that he was obviously enamored with his own playing. But Gilmore, who went to the same high school I attended in New York City — many years later than I — is one of the most incredible drummers on the scene today. I’d love to hear him playing music I could connect with.

Perhaps I’m too old for this. Maybe it was just over amplified, again, as most of the RIAF performances seemed to be. Or maybe Iyer is really a very talented magician, pretending to be a musician, fooling most of the people most of the time.

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RIAF REVIEW: Pedrito Martinez Group & Duo Amal

October 24th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: October 18, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman got it right: It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.

We took in two of the Ringling International Art Festival’s performances last week, starting with The Pedrito Martinez Group in the Cook Theater, and ending with the Duo Amal in the Mildred Sainer Pavilion.

The first was called, by the New York Times, “ … complex, blenderized Africa-to-the-New-World funk.” I’d simply call it loud. The group — consisting of singer-drummer Martinez, bassist Alvaro Benavides, singer-keyboardist Aricacne Trujillo and drummer-cowbell player Jhair Sala — was so over-amplified, some of the wiser audience members were seen stuffing tissues in their ears.

Their music is not my cup of tea, which doesn’t make it or them bad. They’ve certainly made a name for themselves at major festivals from Newport to New Orleans. Maybe I’d have enjoyed it if I’d been lolling under a palm tree in Punta Cana with a tall rum drink or two or three. But in the small confines of the Cook Theatre, I felt as if I’d descended into a tonally cacophonous hell.

Individually, they’re interesting performers, some with more music to offer than others. But the over-amplification in the tiny Cook Theater drummed out any sense or sensibility they may have had under other circumstances. My ears ached for hours.

Duo Amal was the antidote.

Pianists Bishara Haroni, from Palestine, and Yaron Kohlberg, from Israel, named their piano team “Amal,” which means “hope” in Arabic. Proteges of Zubin Mehta, the pair first played together at a peace concert in Oslo about three years ago, proving that with music, all things are possible, and when you have the kind of prodigious talent these 31-year-olds have, there’s hope for the world.

Opening with Schubert’s piano four-hand, “Fantasia in F Minor,” the two shared the Yamaha grand bringing out the individual voices of this well-known work with a clarity and mature understanding rarely heard. Their sensitivity to voicing and bridging tonal transitions was impeccable, and they brought a rare transparency to this beautifully crafted piece.

They brought the same intelligent, impressive music making to Israeli composer Avner Dorman’s “Karsilama,” a folksy, syncopated, fun piece for two pianos that sounded like updated Bartok in the woods.

The Concertino for Two Pianos by Shostakovich was, like the Schubert, in multiple movements but played through and showed the duo’s ample technical prowess without ever letting down on their individual musicality.

Rachmininov’s Suite No. 1, a “Fantaisie-Tableaux” for two pianos, ended the program. This gorgeously romantic piece is Rachmaninov’s early Russian side sounding much like Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It’s a wonderful work and deserves to be heard more often, especially in the powerful and perceptive hands of this duo.

Their encore was the finale of the Prokofiev “Classical” Symphony in a dazzling arrangement for two pianos by the Japanese composer Rikuya Terashima.

Two things to note: Haroni and Kohlberg used electronic tablets rather than traditional sheet music, turning pages with an unobtrusive foot pedal and making this, in Kohlberg’s words, “a 21st century” musician’s concert. That’s certainly the wave of the future, cutting down on the need for page-turners and lugging numerous heavy scores on trans-Atlantic flights.

What we hope is not the wave of the future is the totally unnecessary amplification of two grand pianos in a small space. Why? The pianists are powerful and the microphones pointing into the strings, no matter how deftly placed by the sound engineers, only serve to distort the real sound of the instruments. Perhaps ears have grown accustomed to the bombastic sounds of rock music but Schubert and Shostakovich don’t need futuristic (and deafening) assistance.

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MUSIC REVIEW: A Tribute to William E. Schmidt Featuring The American Spiritual Ensemble

September 10th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: September 8, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

William Schmidt seemed to bring joyful music everywhere he went and the fact that he and his wife, Casiana, most recently were living in Sarasota has meant that our musical arts organizations have benefited from the Schmidt touch. Take the Sarasota Opera. The name of the building may be the Sarasota Opera House, but the auditorium inside is named The William E. Schmidt Theater.

This concept of naming parts of famous places after people who’ve lovingly given their money, time or art is nothing new. Carnegie Hall, which still bears the name of Andrew Carnegie (even if they do pronounce it differently in New York City), sports a different name for the actual auditorium — the big one, inside, that seats about 2,800 people and has the smiling ghosts of every great musician of more than a century. It’s called The Isaac Stern Auditorium. And Carnegie’s stage (the real one, not the deli), has been named after Ronald O. Perelman. Even the Metropolitan Opera House has Ezio Pinza Water Fountains.

But there was much more to Bill Schmidt than his name. A business man who loved to fly, he adored music. And, along with the numerous contributions he made as a musical philanthropist in various parts of the country, he also founded the Schmidt Vocal Competition, which awards monetary and scholarship prizes to talented high school students who, after singing for a panel of illustrious judges, are not only awarded money, they’re also rewarded with the opportunity to be heard by famous conservatory and university voice teachers who “recruit” them to study at their distinguished institutions.

It was the Bill Schmidt touch. A gentle and loving touch that went far beyond the financial aspects of these awards and made sure these young students were followed and nurtured and properly trained in their craft. That’s something rare in the field of musical competitions. But then, Bill Schmidt was a rare man. Bill passed away a few weeks ago but, except for the deep vacuum he left for his family and friends, his spirit of giving was so strong, he’s still very much alive in the lives of those he touched.

That spirit was positively glowing this past weekend when his widow, Casiana Schmidt, brought Bill’s beloved American Spiritual Ensemble to Sarasota to blow out the walls of the William E. Schmidt Auditorium at the Sarasota Opera.

This group, made of big, beautifully voiced professional opera singers from all over the continent, had only about 20 people on stage but the sound they made filled the heavens. Returning here after four years of making numerous recordings and touring large and small cities around Europe and the United States, The American Spiritual Ensemble proved they’re, indeed, filled with The Spirit. Under the excellent direction of Dr. Everett McCorvey — Director of the Opera Theater at the University of Kentucky and, most recently named Artistic Director of the eminent National Chorale in New York City — these singers specialize in the art of the Negro Spiritual. This is not gospel music. It’s the historic, emotional, beautiful, traditional music of African-Americans in arrangements that, basically, knock your socks off.

Starting at the rear of the Schmidt Auditorium and making their way down the aisles to the stage, they sang Moses Hogan’s “Down to the River to Pray” and the bass drone of “Hear My Prayer,” sending chills down spines from wall to wall. The varied but somewhat sedate (it was, after all, a Memorial Concert) program featured soloists from within the group whose individual voices gave us more than an inkling of why this ensemble is so rich in musicianship, sound and color.

Among the standouts was countertenor Matthew Truss, whose rich, full-bodied soprano voice is among the finest I’ve heard of the current crop of singers in this particular vocal category. This is no thin-blooded, falsetto-of-a-singer. His top register has the bloom of a true spinto soprano, something rarely (if ever) heard in a countertenor. All I could think was, Wow.

Soprano Rebecca Farley, a young winner of the Schmidt Competition who was making her first appearance with the Ensemble, made a lovely contribution to the soprano section as both a soloist and chorus member, with an easy, even, light lyric sound. Karen Slack, a dramatic soprano with a personality to match, blew us out of the water as the soloist in “You Must Have that True Religion,” and Kevin Thompson, whose deep bass (“Ol’ Man River”) is so resonant he becomes a whole bass section by himself, brought the audience to its feet.

There were short but sweet speeches by Richard Russell, Stephanie Sundine and Melissa Burtless, representing Sarasota Opera, as well as McCorvey and Casiana Schmidt. Each showed a different aspect of Bill Schmidt’s life and love. But it was the music that spoke the loudest and, this self-effacing gentleman with the glittering eyes, must have been kvelling from his front row seat in Heaven.

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Amazing Women of the Suncoast: June LeBell

August 25th, 2014Posted by admin

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From ABC7 WWSB mysuncoast.com:

The arts scene on the Suncoast attracts many people who’ve been very successful in their careers to move here when they retire — like this week’s Amazing Woman of the Suncoast: classical musician, lecturer, and broadcaster June LeBell.

Read the article by Linda Carson

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Music Festival – Final Weekend

June 24th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: June 22, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The Sarasota Music Festival closed its 50th anniversary season over the weekend with simply stunning music-making by international performers, from teenaged prodigies to world-renowned artists. Hearing the Brahms B Minor Clarinet Quintet performed by Eli Eban (principal clarinetist for the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra), Martin Chalifour (principal concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic), Noah Bendix-Balgley (concertmaster of no less than the Berlin Philharmonic), Elizabeth Beilman (principal violist of the Sarasota Orchestra) and Desmond Hoebig (multiple award-winning cellist who now is a professor at the illustrious Shepherd School of Music at Rice), was like meeting your Brahmsian dream team. And putting Robert Levin at the piano with violinist Timothy Lees (concertmaster of the Cincinnati Symphony) and Timothy Eddy (a member of the Orion Quartet) for Beethoven’s E flat Piano Trio, Opus 70, No. 2 produced a performance that clarified Beethoven’s role in changing the face of great music.

Another extraordinary thing: Several of the international performers had, themselves, been students at the Sarasota Music Festival in the past, including Beilman — who has, in the last couple of years since she joined our orchestra, made quite a name for herself as a violist of exquisite tone and musicianship — and Bendix-Blagley — who spent three summers with the Sarasota Festival before going on to become the concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony and, most recently, the newly appointed concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, an ensemble in the rarified strata of greatest orchestras on Earth.

Then there were the kids who, playing excerpts from ensembles by Mozart, Martinu and Huber, like seasoned professionals, are on their way — with the help of this great international teaching festival — to becoming the superstars of tomorrow. Hailing from conservatories around the world — Juilliard, Rice, Indiana, Eastman, Cleveland, Curtis and Singapore — these disciples of the great musical traditions are dazzling in their viruosic techniques and profound understanding of the great composers; an inspiration to those of us who sat, thrilled, in the sold-out Opera House, hearing these enthusiastic dazzlers.

On Saturday, the final evening of the season, with nary an empty seat to be found, the internationally celebrated conductor, Nicholas McGegan, led the Festival Orchestra, made up of all those exceptional young musicians, in a brilliant program of major works by Brahms, Saint-Saens and Poulenc. The iconic moment came with the Brahms Symphony No. 3, with Lees serving as concertmaster and, lurking quietly in the last stand violins, the Berlin Philharmonic’s new concertmaster and former Festival student, Bendix-Balgley. One only hopes someone got a photo with a wide-angle lens that encompassed the past, present and future.

But, photo-ops aside, it was the music-making that was so supremely stunning. I’m used to my Brahms big, lush, rich and thick. McGegan, who’s obviously done a lot of research into the composer’s style, pared down the sound and came out with a Third Symphony that was as clear as a mountain brook and just as refreshing. The dense, heavy and, sometimes impenetrable Brahms of my childhood seemed to be swept away by McGegan’s faster, more slender sounds, showing us that Brahms had originally intended this work for a smaller, more chamber-like ensemble than the bulk of the philharmonics we’ve heard throughout the 20th century. Which is right? Historically, McGegan’s. Which is better? That word shouldn’t even surface while listening to music when a work is as well played and convincing as this Brahms symphony was Saturday night.

Chalifour, playing a gut-string Strad, proved why he’s been principal concertmaster in the illustrious L.A. Phil, first with Esa-Pekka Salonen, and now with Gustavo Dudamel. His performance of the Saint-Saens B minor Violin Concerto with the festival orchestra and McGegan was captivating and riveting. He joined the SMF faculty in 1993 and, from the bite of his playing to the richness of his tone, any young violinist who had the opportunity to work with him this past week came away with a whole new world of great performance standards.

The final work on the program was Poulenc’s vivacious, dancing Concerto for Two Pianos. Here, again, McGegan proved he and the Festival Orchestra were excellent accompanists, as they set a brisk tempo for the two soloists — Ya-Fei Chuang (an alumna of the festival), and her husband and the festival’s artistic director, Robert Levin.

One of the great concertos for two pianos, this was a performance that’s right up there with the gold-standard of Poulenc performances by the old duo-pianist team of Gold and Fizdale. Their performance with the New York Philharmonic is indelibly etched in my head, but the one with Chuang and Levin, with the brilliantly talented students of the festival orchestra, was as exhilarating and thrilling as any I’ve heard.
What a stupendous way to conclude the festival’s 50th anniversary season.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Music Festival – Saturday Symphony 2

June 19th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: June 15, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

There was an electricity pulsing through the Opera House Saturday evening as the Sarasota Music Festival, with conductor Larry Rachleff, presented its second symphony concert and proved there’s a certain connective tissue that links music and musicians when the talent, attitude and aptitude are there.

Although this program was considered “symphonic,” there was one work on the program — Richard Strauss’ The Serenade, Opus 7 — that was very much a chamber work. Led by Rachleff, faculty artists Leone Buyse, Allan Vogel, Charles Neidich, Frank Morelli and William Purvis, along with their student counterparts, performed the work, scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, plus four horns and a contrabassoon. This may be an early work by Strauss but it encompasses all the beauty of his later operas and fragments of his songs; ravishing in sound but as pure and perfect as the Mozart “Gran Partita” that may have inspired it. Even though it is a work for only 13 instruments, like so much of Strauss’ music, it is grand in both perception and concept. And it was played that way.

Berlioz’s Overture to “Beatrice and Benedict,” the work that opened the program, is colossal in every way. It offers difficulties for players three times the age and experience of the students in the Sarasota Music Festival but, with Rachleff’s clear leadership, triplets were tossed off with ease and, best of all, precision and pitch were perfect. As we said last week, Rachleff knows how to treat silences, and Berlioz wrote rests into this score that, in unmusical hands, could sound like conclusions rather than connections.

Singing was what these young musicians did with their instruments. With Rachleff at the helm, they breathed through phrases, connected ideas and brought out the important themes without overwhelming inner voices.

The same magic happened in Barber’s gorgeous violin concerto. Elena Urioste, who was, herself, a student at the Sarasota Music Festival just a few years ago and has since gone on to solo with major orchestras from the New York Philharmonic to the Chicago Symphony, was the dazzling but sensitive soloist. She produced a singing line from her instrument, from the achingly beautiful opening theme to the never-ending perpetual motion of the finale. In between, the words to James Agee’s exquisite poem, “Sure on This Shining Night,” set by Barber in a most famous song, echoed through Urioste’s playing. Barber borrowed from his own song (“Sure on This Shining Night” is from his Opus 13 and the violin concerto is Opus 14). The middle movement has fragments of the poem sifting through the notes: “Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder, wandr’ing far alone, of shadows on the stars.” It’s all there, and with Urioste, the orchestra and Rachleff singing the concerto, it was truly shining.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, the “Jupiter,” concluded the program in grand style. Rachleff conducted it in a way that showed its link to the future. Beethoven’s architecture and vertical voicing is firmly imprinted in Mozart’s last symphony. They’d heard each other’s music by then, and they were duly impressed and influenced.

Here, again, Rachleff breathed through the rests so the silences were incorporated into the music. This was a student orchestra playing like experienced professionals: tapering phrases, building crescendos and singing through lines with an understanding far beyond their years. Perception doesn’t always keep pace with technical talent, but Rachleff managed to bring both together. And, for an encore, he gave us 45 seconds of what he said was an incredible moment in music: repeating the double fugue and canon with five voices in the coda, bringing everything in the “Jupiter” together as only Mozart (with a little help from Rachleff, the inspiration of youth and, possibly, the muse of Beethoven) could do.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Music Festival

June 12th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: June 7, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Fifty years ago — 1964 — I was studying at the Hartt College of Music, and my parents were testing the waters of the Gulf of Mexico here in Sarasota. Music-lovers, they felt they’d found paradise when they realized Sarasota had a chamber music festival. In the next couple of years, they recognized some of my high school and conservatory classmates playing chamber music here.

Now, 50 years later, my parents are gone, but the great Sarasota music-making lives on with those classmates of mine, who are now faculty members of the Sarasota Music Festival, and I, sitting in the audience, writing reviews.

On June 7, in the Opera House, Larry Rachleff led a lean, keen, brilliant orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Second Symphony that wasn’t my father’s (or my) Beethoven Second. For those of us used to romantic Beethoven, this was true classical music: transparent, youthful, exuberant, powerful and stylish. Conducting without a score, Rachleff brought out inner voices I hadn’t heard before and, believe me, I know this symphony.

The larghetto from this work served as the “filler” music on WQXR’s “Symphony Hall,” a program I hosted during my shift, five nights a week for more years than I like to mention. The recording we used was thick and lush, romantic and opulent. What we heard tonight was spare and lean. It threw me at first, but then I realized this is Beethoven. Early Beethoven. It’s from the Classical period. It’s not romantic. It’s not Brahms. And Rachleff and his wonderfully talented orchestra, made of super-talented students who were like me and my friends 50 years ago, brought out sounds that reminded me how amazing music can be because, when it’s played well, it’s never stagnant or inert. It has life, new life. And that’s why teaching festivals like the one we have here are so important. We all learn from them, and they keep us young and vibrant, like the music.

The concert opened with a conductorless reading of Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in B minor from “L’estro Armonico.” Featuring a quartet of violinists — veterans Joseph Silverstein, Ani Kavafian and Alexander Kerr, with Chapman University student Emily Uematsu — and a baroque chamber ensemble, there were a few moments of fizzy pitch but, for the most part, it was a straightforward performance with each of the musicians listening intently to each other for cues and colors.

Ravel’s “Le tombeau de Couperin” with Rachleff (again scoreless) at the helm had a wonderfully brisk feeling with sweeping tempos and lots of forward motion in the opening prelude and well-known and beloved final rigaudon.

After intermission and before the Beethoven one of the students spoke eloquently and succinctly. He told us how exciting it was to work with such famous musicians. He called them, “household names” and said he was bowled over by sharing “an elevator in a hotel with them and talking about Mozart.”

Those household names are the people who, 50 years ago were those kids, gazing adoringly at other household names who’ve since left their marks on chamber and orchestral music as we hear it today. The Sarasota Music Festival is celebrating an important anniversary this season. It’s thrilling to think that 50 years from today, some of those students who were playing Beethoven’s Second tonight will be the household names teaching yet to be born musicians of the future.

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MUSIC REVIEW: The Artist Series Concerts – Ollarsaba and Hill

June 3rd, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: June 1, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Tenor Jeffrey Hill and bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba, with pianist Avis Romm, appeared on the Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota last weekend at the Historic Asolo Theater in a program that started and ended, cleverly enough, with a duet from “City of Angels.” At the beginning, they were pouting, “You’re Nothing Without Me,” but by the finale they were good buddies, singing, “I’m Nothing Without You.” In between, their music ranged from Lieder and art songs to arias and Broadway — some performed with more success than others.

The singers and pianist seemed much more at home with the classical portions of the program. Ollarsaba’s performance of “Il modo di prender moglie,” a comic song in Italian by Schubert, was charming, funny and strong, with more overtones of the Count in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” than the prolific Lieder composer. His renditions of Copland’s “Zion’s Walls” and Steven Mark Kohn’s “Farmer’s Cursed Wife” were stylish and hearty, while Hill’s delivery of two similar American songs by Hub Miller, “Spinning Song” and “Half and Half,” were tender and eloquent.

Much of Hill’s choices of songs didn’t fit his light tenor. Several were too low for him, causing him to stretch the bottom of his voice to depths he doesn’t seem able to handle at this point in his career. And, when it came to the more trendy songs — “People” and “They Just Keep Moving the Line” from the TV show “Smash” — he just didn’t seem comfortable with the pop style. “Smash,” in particular, calls for a brassy, Broadway belt, something this classically trained tenor doesn’t have.

But Ollarsaba seemed as at home with the Broadway tunes as he was with opera. His performance of the Toreador Song from Bizet’s “Carmen,” an aria with a range similar to that of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” which took the singer an octave and a fifth, from bottom to top, was stirring, as was his rendition of “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha.”

The person who seemed the most discomfited by the range of repertoire was Romm, who was much more attuned to the songs and arias in the first half than the Broadway and pop tunes in the second. It’s hard to switch from one genre to another, and this program was so wide in its range, it’s amazing they were able to pull it all together as well as they did.

Fortunately, the concert was billed as an entertainment, rather than a recital, and the performers managed to entertain the audience well with their differing styles, excellent diction and obvious love of the music.

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MUSIC REVIEW: The Musical Abundance of Sarasota

May 13th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: May 13, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

I double dare anyone to say Sarasota isn’t one of the most musically abundant cities in the country. In one Sunday, we attended a concert of mostly 20th and 21st century music by Sybarite5 in Holley Hall, ran home to feed our dog, and then waltzed over to the Historic Asolo to spend the evening with Lehar’s “Merry Widow.” You couldn’t have two more contrasting musical experiences, yet they were both satisfying and musically fascinating.

We recently told you about Sybarite5’s Forward Festival, a series of five concerts in as many venues around Sarasota, focusing on music of almost every era performed by the Sybarites (violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violist Angela Pickett, cellist Laura Metcalf, and bassist Louis Levitt) with a variety of friends including mezzo Blythe Gaissert, pianist Djordge Nesic, the Chroma Quartet, percussionist George Nickson and harpist Cheryl Losey.

The Festival’s grand finale took place the afternoon of May 11 in Holley Hall, which was set up cabaret-style, with tables, nibbles of cheese and crackers, champagne and an intimate, convivial atmosphere. All the musicians were participating this time and their program, which opened with “The Shark,” a jazzy, dancing, rhythmic piece by Astor Piazolla, set the stage for things to come, ranging from experimental musical sounds that were both emotionally and dramatically intriguing, to more conventional forays into styles from jazz to impressionism.

Among the more absorbing works on the program were some pieces by Radiohead, the British rock band that’s influenced myriad classical musicians over the years. Hearing Syberite5 play “No Surprises,” surprised me into wanting to hear more of this music that’s beautiful, tonal and used mesmerizing melodies over Vivaldi-like pizzicatos. Another of their works, “Weird Fishes,” was more rhythmically complex with electronic sounds acoustically produced, resulting in a melding of John Adams and Philip Glass — simple on the surface but complicated in its core.

Sybarite5 and Chroma joined forces for “Last Round,” a work composed by Osvoldo Golijov in honor of Piazolla as “A sublimated tango … two quartets confront each other…with the bass in between,” we were told. Words, while adding a personal touch, weren’t needed because the swirling music spoke well for itself. Ending without musical resolution, it was one of the most intriguing pieces on the program.

But then there was Debussy’s well-known “Danses sacree et profane” performed with magic by Sarasota Orchestra’s principal harpist, Cheryl Losey, with Syberite5 and Chroma. This work is generally done with a conductor but this ensemble held together beautifully without one, except for one thing: it lacked an overall concept and interpretation. It’s fine for a chamber ensemble to be conductorless, especially a group as well-honed and precise as this one. But a leader would have given the work a focus it lacked. Losey, though, positively burned the harp, giving it a glistening, glowing performance.

Another work, Andy Akiho’s “Revolve,” written for Sybarite5, and based on a five note pattern with rushing, knocking, plucking, slapping sounds, had its world premiere at the concert, and the group — with Gaissert — performed a new version of “Goodnight Moon,” a lovely setting of the children’s book, by Glen Roven (who heard the performance, live, via Skype … probably a first for Holley Hall).

The most eloquent work of the afternoon was “Coming Together,” by Frederic Rzewski. Here, Syb5, Gaissert, pianist Djordje Nesic and George Nickson on marimba, painted a mesmerizingly frightening and disturbing aural portrait of insanity. Gaissert, who proved to be as able a narrator and actress as she is a singer, used a sort of Sprechstimme to speak her lines rhythmically and robot-like, as if in a trance, first like a sci-if creature, and then as she repeated the same story about her excellent “physical and emotional health,” we realized she was about to crack. Finally, the repetitious script devolved into “I talk to guards and inmates,” with her instrumental colleagues joining in with pointed phrases, showing she had, indeed, fractured her personality. To do this in music takes mastery and, disturbing as it was, this madness in music was also emotionally powerful and beautifully performed.

Imagine leaving with that kind of insanity buzzing in your head, only to be whirled into the waltzes and melodies of Lehar’s “Merry Widow.” It was jolting and a little discomfiting but also a welcome respite from a Daliesque afternoon.

The Artist Series Concerts offered three performances of the “Merry Widow” at the Historic Asolo over the weekend, in an encapsulated version arranged, choreographed and directed by Joy McIntyre, who also served as the charming narrator, holding the far-fetched but fetching story together.

Sung in English with simply magnificent videos of Viennese palaces, gardens and ballrooms as the backdrop, it was a fun and very welcome evening. The men in the cast — baritone Andrew Garland, as Count Danilo; tenor Gregory Schmidt as Count de Rosillon; and baritone John Fiorita as Baron Zeta — fared better than the women. Garland, whose rich baritone soared through “Maxim’s” and, with Schmidt, roared through “Girls, Girls, Girls,” was particularly effective as an excellent singer and actor. While soprano Lindsay Russell showed a lovely, light voice as Valencienne, Susana Diaz, as the Widow, had a garbled, strangely produced soprano that was covered and not very appealing.

Still, you can’t argue with such beautiful music and, with members of the Gloria Musicae Singers in smaller roles, this “Merry Widow” was seductive, fun and heartening. The Can-Can scene (“Little Paris Ladies), sung and danced by Gloria Musicae, showed — shall we say — an entirely different side of this ensemble that really needed to be seen to be believed. Having sung with this group for many years, all I could think was, Better them than me.

The star of the show was the off-stage pianist and musical director, Joseph Holt who sounded like a full orchestra with stylish, polished playing. As much as the audience enjoyed the singers and dancers on stage, when Holt finally came out for his curtain call, he was given the largest ovation, with great justification.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra goes to the ball game

May 12th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: May 12, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

“It’s the end of the season but Sarasota Orchestra is still doing something new,” said Joe McKenna, President and CEO of the Sarasota Orchestra, to the sold-out audience of more than 3,000 last Saturday evening, when the ensemble, under the direction of Andrew Lane, played at Ed Smith Stadium. Yes, they took us out to the ballpark and hit a home run with a program that spanned a range of pops pieces from the movies and Broadway, to jazz, bluegrass and rock.

It was a first for Sarasota Orchestra. The crowd packed the stands along the third-bass line (okay, we renamed it for this concert), happily munching hot dogs and Crackerjack, while the orchestra strained to accommodate themselves to the very unaccustomed acoustics of an amphitheater-like shell staffed by roadies who know more about blasting rock than augmenting violins. As a result, the first half of the concert was loud. Really loud. Melodies were submerged and drowned out by inner voices of instruments, so selections from “West Side Story” and a suite from Disney’s newer classics sounded familiar but no so much.

Fortunately, the techies knew how to handle the microphone for a singer and, when 16 year old Sarasota super-soprano, Maria Wirries, took the stage to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “Colors of the Wind,” from “Pocahontas,” her beautiful voice and crystal clear diction came across without incident.

The terrific Randall Bass score for “Casey at the Bat,” narrated with assurance and dramatic flair by television anchor Scott Dennis, occasionally drowned out his most passionate lines but that was more the fault of the composer who, in an attempt to make the work musically dramatic, gave big forte sections to the orchestra under the speaker, resulting in a shouting match that no one could solve. Still, it was a great reading by narrator and orchestra and, contrary to the famous poem by Ernest Thayer, there was great joy in Sarasota’s Mudville because this Casey hit it out of the ballpark.

It seemed as if acoustical adjustments were being made by the measure and, by the time beers and franks had been refreshed at intermission, the sound was more within the scope of a classical concert and we were more able to hear the music for what it was.

Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” had a nice swing to it and the selections from “Chicago,” came across so nobody reached for the gun. Molly Cherryholmes, a versatile performer who seems equally at home singing, playing an amplified violin and keyboard (not all at the same time), brought some new notes to the adaptability of the Sarasota Orchestra musicians. It was a little disconcerting to see her playing the fiddle as a southpaw but she’s a hot, multitalented performer and the crowd loved her.

Andrew Lane, the Orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor, knows how to program a winning event and this concert had something for everyone. It also brought in a whole new audience that seemed dazzled by the performances and ready to come inside for a (slightly) more sedate concert next season.

Music from “Star Wars” ended the printed portion of the program but no outdoor concert is complete without a little Sousa so “Stars and Stripes Forever” was the thrilling encore, with piccolos standing, and everyone cheering and clapping. And, as the musicians left the stage for the dugout, we were treated to a close encounter with fireworks that lit up the skies over Tuttle, pronouncing classical music, in all its varied forms, is alive and thriving in Sarasota.

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