June LeBell shares highlights of her career at charity luncheon

April 11th, 2016Posted by admin


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.

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


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra ‘Music of Our Time’

September 27th, 2016Posted by admin


The Sarasota Orchestra offered a pair of bookend concerts that explores experimentation, storytelling and the limits of traditional instruments.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: September 25, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The musicians of the Sarasota Orchestra presented a pair of bookend concerts last week devoted to Music of Our Time: music written by composers born in the early to late 20th century. What we found in listening to the nine works, was a fascinating bridge between the romanticism of the late 19th century and the experimentation that took place in the 20th. Most interesting was the juxtaposition of Pure music (music that has no programmatic material) and Program music (works that tell a story or paint pictures in sound).

What we found was that the earlier the music was written in the 20th century, the more it went against the tradition of what came before it, and as time went on, composers began experimenting, not with modality and scales, but with the way traditional instruments are used. Even more, we found that most of the music written recently has become almost entirely programmatic in theme, and it led to a question: What is music?

Take the oldest piece on the programs, Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles (offered Thursday) and a relatively new work by Francis Schwartz, “The Grey Road,” (performed Sunday). The Webern is pure music without a story while the Schwartz depicts war, death and horror. Neither piece is easy to take. The Webern, blessedly short, is an experiment in what was a new sound — atonality — invented by the composer’s mentors, Schoenberg and Berg. It’s one of those pieces that’s more interesting to play than to hear, but it was carried off well by violinists Christopher Takeda and Jennifer Best Takeda, violist Steven Laraia and cellist Nadine Trudel.

The Schwartz, a tour-de-force for solo tubist Jay Hunsberger, was played impeccably but didn’t come off as the gloomy, dour work Schwartz meant it to be. Titters were scattered through the audience as Hunsberger followed the musical instructions to stamp his feet and make gasping sounds. Fortunately, there were no “carefully chosen aromas” or “control of the hall’s temperature,” as the composer also requested to accompany the work.

Thursday’s program also included “TrainspOrt,” a fun and fascinating piece about a train ride by Theodor Burkali, played enthusiastically by bassoonist Fernando Traba and percussionists George Nickson and Bruce Lehman, and “Thirteen Ways,” an inventive work by Thomas Albert, based on the poem “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. Here, again, we have program music and, in the hands of Carmen Bannon, Calvin Falwell, Daniel Jordan, Chizuko Matsusaka, Nickson and Conor Hanick playing a variety of instruments, it took us on an emotional and fantastical ride on the wings of birds.

Perhaps the best known work on Thursday’s program was George Crumb’s brilliant “Vox balanae,” (Voice of the Whale) which is what music of our time is all about. Here we have experimentation with instruments imitating the sounds of the great whales but still carrying emotion, beauty and feeling so strong, so true, one doesn’t need a story to back it up. Flutist Betsy Traba (whose opening solo brought chills and tears to me), cellist Christopher Schnell and Jonathan Spivey, playing a prepared piano, did a masterful job with this well-known work that’s lasted the test of several decades.

In addition to the Schwartz piece for tuba, Sunday’s concert, which often centered around death, highlighted a pair of wondrous works: “Cadernos,” a bell-like piece by Andreia Pinto-Correia, played with understanding and clarity by Nickson on solo vibraphone, and “Death with Interruptions,” by Derek Bermel, performed with warmth and beauty by violinist Jennifer Best Takeda, cellist Christopher Schnell and pianist Jonathan Spivey.

Pinto-Correia made a return visit with her “Teatro de Marionetas,” a jazzy, rhythmic work depicting enormous puppets (imagine a T-Rex on wires) featuring Hunsberger and Aaron McCalla on tubas and Nickson on a drumset.

Sunday’s program concluded with “Immutable Dreams,” by Kati Agocs, a work for chamber ensemble conducted with precision by Nickson, that combined pure music with a program and left us with the impression we need to hear more of this composer.


Music Review: Maria Wirries at the Glenridge Performing Arts Center

July 21st, 2016Posted by admin


Maria Wirries continues to sing beyond her years.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: July 18, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

It’s an interesting thing watching what could be a major musical career unfold. We’ve been keeping eyes and ears on Maria Wirries since she was 11. She’s now about to turn 19, going into her junior year in Penn State’s music program. Every time we hear her, she’s grown even more into the performer she may become as she matures.

Wirries, a soprano with the lower extension of a mezzo, who can belt if a song calls for it, has always had an enormous stage presence. She enters stage right, and the house lights up.

This past weekend, the beautiful and talented young woman lit up the Glenridge Performing Arts Center with pianist Alan Jay Corey (who’s been her voice teacher and coach through most of her earlier years) and the multitalented steel pan/drummer John Patti. Their program, taking Wirries “From the Caribbean to College and Back,” was something of a nightclub-cabaret act that she’d put together with entertaining and insightful comments, letting us glimpse into her raison d’être for each song.

Wirries has thankfully maintained her freshness, with a charming naiveté in her banter. And her brilliantly youthful voice, while beautifully trained to go further, never pushes or over-reaches the abilities she has right now.

The first part of her program featured primarily songs from shows she loves and has participated in during her first years at Penn State. From “Home,” from “Phantom,” to the warm-hearted “Creole Girl,” from “Nightsongs,” she never lost her enthusiasm for the music and the words. With impeccable diction that allowed us to understand every word of every song, Wirries managed to tell stories, turning herself into different characters, from the Baker’s Wife to the mid-century hippy from “Hair,” which she casually reminded us — making us feel our age — is now 50 years old.

But Wirries hasn’t cast off all childish things. When she’s nervous and feeling out her audience, she still occasionally resorts to what I call the “Maria Shrug,” a young mannerism she’s had since I’ve known her, that lifts an arm into the air and, with a bit of embarrassment, allows the arm to do a should shrug and plop back onto her hip in a youthful but meaningless movement that she’ll soon outgrow.

Using the many tools in her box of vocal talent, Wirries is able to draw on the vastness and depth of her voice and musical understanding to weave a spell with her audience. What she doesn’t seem to realize, yet, is the enormity of those abilities and, when she’s using her upper register, she still sings with only part of what she has, trying to give shadings and nuances that she doesn’t quite know how to handle at this stage of her growth.

Very much to her credit, however, she never pushes, but rather, always keeps her young abilities in proportion to everything she’s doing. How tempting it must be to pull out all the stops, but she’s not only talented and well-trained, she’s also smart. There’s time ahead for those colors and sounds. It’s just frustrating for us in the audience, because she seems so far beyond her years, we want to hear all of it. Now.

The second half of the program focused on a wide variety of songs, from classics, including “Summertime” (sung in an arrangement that made good use of the steel pans and even had Wirries showing off her scat chops), to a charming morsel called “Hang on Little Tomato.”

Having changed from a glittering gold gown in the first half to a Haitian-inspired costume for the second, we were treated, not just to Wirries’ charm, but also to a brief but fascinating history of the steel pans, complete with demonstrations and looks inside the instruments by the verbal and dextrous John Patti.

If we were to get into the nitty gritty of this program, one might say there should have been more variety in Wirries’ choice of songs. Too often energy was subdued and her performances gave the impression she was singing only from the neck up, rather than giving us the full force of her very forceful personality and talent.

Then again, it was a wisely chosen program that kept her youth, fragility and intelligence in the forefront. It’s all there: the lyrical understanding, energetic performances and certainly a voice that will one day knock us out of our seats.

For now, she’s better off leaving us wanting more. It’s worth the wait.


Music review: Gloria Musicae Patriotic Spectacular

July 15th, 2016Posted by admin


In its annual Independence Day concert, the choral artists have never sounded better.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: July 12, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Gloria Musicae, a.k.a. the Choral Artists of Sarasota, has been presenting well-attended concerts for the Fourth of July for about a decade. But oh, how those programs have changed over the years. There’s only so much you can do with a concert devoted to a particular celebratory event. Too often, the program is just a rehash of the same music, arranged by different musicians and performed in a different order.

Not with Gloria Musicae.

Last week’s Patriotic Spectacular, offered at a completely sold-out First United Methodist Church in Sarasota, opened with René Clausens’ rousing version of “The Star Spangled Banner” and closed with Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” sung with the 30 all-professional singers circling the audience, which had been handed American flags to wave and kazoos to toot.

In between, Artistic Director and conductor Joseph Holt put together groups that were, in turn, moving, meaningful and mighty enough to rattle the stained glass windows, starting with a trio of George M. Cohan favorites arranged by Greg Gilpin.

Next was a beautifully thoughtful group of six songs that were extremely moving. Holt asked, almost pleaded with us, not to applaud between songs, but there were moments that were so musically and emotionally intense, we almost had to sit on our hands. Dan Davison’s “A Soldier, and the One I Love,” started this group of Civil War pieces and spirituals, and featured Gloria Musicae’s clear-voiced soprano Michaela Ristaino with mezzo Lauren Krockta in a mostly acapella setting that showed off the ensemble’s ability to sing smack on the pitch without wavering.

John Purifoy’s beautiful setting of “Words Of Lincoln,” was followed by Glennis-Smith and Wallace’s “The Mansions of the Lord.” And then the very sweet-voiced tenor, Rodney Lallemand, had a solo in the contemporary styled “If I Can Help Somebody,” arranged by David Brunner. Two high-powered spirituals ended the group: Joel Raney’s arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine,” featuring soprano Cami Wyatt and the super-amazing Amy Jo Connours, and “Ride the Chariot” with Nicole Rebelo, whose clarion soprano nearly knocked us out of the church.

“America, the Beautiful” was simply beautiful in Carmen Dragon’s timeless arrangement, and Robyn Rocklein, who seems comfortable and full-throated in every register from contralto to high soprano, did more than justice to Healey’s arrangement of Berlin’s “God Bless America,” that included a well-done narration by Mark Lubas.

There was a swinging group by the Gershwins, arranged for chorus by Mac Huff, the traditional Armed Forces Salute (which gave just about everyone in the audience a chance to stand for their branch, sing along and clap mightily in rhythm), a group of Irving Berlin show stoppers ending with a sing-along of “God Bless America” (because we didn’t join in the first time around), that gargantuan and choreographed “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and an encore of Peter J. Wilhousky’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that raised hairs on the baldest audience members.

Andrew Lapp was the superb pianist for the group, sounding like Horowitz at his most powerful, the Boston Pops at its most popular, and the pied piper with a sparkle and twinkle in his fingers. And Holt held it all together with a new conducting finesse that should serve him well in the upcoming season that includes a performance of the Verdi “Requiem.”

In full disclosure, I sang with Gloria Musicae for more than 10 years. But I must admit, they’ve never sounded better than they sound now. I couldn’t be more proud.


Music review: Sarasota Music Festival closing weekend

June 28th, 2016Posted by admin


The end of the festival paid tribute to Paul Wolfe and Robert Levin.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: June 26, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

This weekend was one of celebration and tribute for two musicians who’ve left their indelible marks on the Sarasota music scene. It began Thursday afternoon in Holley Hall with a 90th-birthday tribute to Paul Wolfe, conductor laureate of the Sarasota Orchestra and co-founder and artistic director, for 42 years, of the Sarasota Music Festival.

It doesn’t matter that Paul’s real birthday was May 8th. When you turn 90, you’re entitled to at least a full year of celebrations.

The program, put together with the assistance of Maestro Wolfe, was a well-rounded, fun one, opening with the Duo Number 1 in C, attributed to Beethoven, and played with humor and grace by clarinetist Charles Neidich and bassoonist Nancy Goeres. The duo had been students together at the SMF a while ago (they never did admit exactly when), and they haven’t lost their grasp on the joy of chamber music. One of the keys on Neidich’s instrument (a clarinet in C), was sticky, so between movements, he borrowed a dollar bill from an audience member and unstuck the glop. That’s the kind of thing that brings a sold-out audience onto the stage and makes a performance memorable — along with the great playing, of course. (Yes, Charlie returned the dollar.)

Oboist Stephen Tayler, violinist Charles Wetherbee, violist Robert Vernon and cellist Brinton Smith were up next with a rich and sonorous performance of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F, K.370. Why an oboe quartet? Because Paul Wolfe, when he wasn’t conducting or playing the violin, played the oboe. In fact, he played it in Leon Barzin’s orchestra back in 1951.

Schubert’s brilliant Quartettsatz came next with Wetherbee, James Buswell, Vernon and Smith, followed by one of those indecipherable works that came from the 1970s but wasn’t finished for about 20 years and sounds that way. The composer, Gyorgy Kurtag, wrote several homages to such disparate people as Tchaikovsky and Nancy Sinatra. This one, an Hommage to Robert Schumann made it pretty difficult to hear any familiar snippets, but it was played with verve by Neidich, violist Charles Galante and pianist Jean Schneider.

The tribute to Paul Wolfe concluded perfectly with an Hommage to the maestro himself by Robert Levin, who told the audience it was a “silly piece.” Silly or not, it was fun and clever, with Levin making the snippets he used from other works, from gypsy themes and Straussian waltzes to a smidgen of Mozart, into a wondrous pastiche of a portrait, using the spellings of the names of Paul and his wife Doris, “sideways, upside-down and inside out.” Bach would have loved it.

Saturday night’s concert in the Opera House was a tribute to Levin, who will be leaving his position as artistic director of the Sarasota Music Festival, after 10 years. Do not panic! Levin isn’t leaving us. He’s just putting aside the formal title but, as was announced at the concert, he’s already chosen his time to teach and give classes at the 2017 SMF.

The wonderful conductor Nicholas McGegan led the Festival Orchestra, which featured this seasons’ enormously talented students, and he opened the evening with Vivaldi’s F Major Concerto — a great choice since it gives both section leaders and sections an opportunity to strut their stuff. And strut they did, from the winds (who stood, stylishly, for the occasion) to the continuo to concertmaster Charles Wetherbee. McGegan is a great, internationally known conductor, but one of his greatest attributes is his knowledge of musical style. Imagine being a student and learning from such a master.

McGegan’s mastery also came through in a spectacular reading of Schubert’s Symphony Number 6. Known as “the other C Major Symphony,” the more well-known one being dubbed “The Great,” this one is shorter and smaller but pretty great in itself. McGegan is small in stature and he doesn’t use a baton. He uses his entire body to get his passion and joy in music across to the musicians and audience. But his movements never get in the way of the music.

Finally, Robert Levin, the star of the evening, came on stage for a magnificent performance of Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto, Number 24, K.491. Levin is such a Mozart scholar, some have said he channels the composer, and that seemed to be just what happened as he played. Playing along with the orchestra, improvising what Mozart hadn’t written, he knew every cue, every instrument in the score and was able to embellish, presumably the way the composer did as he performed.

If that weren’t quite enough, Levin, in honor of the occasion, played an encore: the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata, K.330. He didn’t announce it. That would have broken the mood, and I’m not sure Levin’s voice wouldn’t have broken if he’d spoken. I think that movement is in F and starts with three consecutive C’s. But then, a rose by any other name smells as sweet. And this was quite a sweet night for a great musician.


Music Review: Sarasota Music Festival

June 19th, 2016Posted by admin


The annual festival draws a bevy of international talent.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: June 19, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

There is something very exciting about going to concerts as one of the crowd and coming out with a big grin on your face. That’s what happened to me this past weekend when I attended a chamber concert at Holley Hall Thursday afternoon and an orchestral concert at the Opera House Saturday night.

The Sarasota Music Festival, one of the great teaching and performing festivals on the international scene, has a bevy of talented young students who migrate to Sarasota for three weeks of masterclasses and chamber rehearsals with the world’s greatest musical mentors (many of whom began their careers here doing the same thing). They also get to play really tough orchestral works under the leadership of a trio of excellent, world-renowned conductors who fill the students with musical experiences they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Timothy Eddy, a cellist who got his start at the Sarasota Music Festival as a student in 1970, joined its faculty 10 years later. Not only is he a major chamber musician, but he has also taught at Juilliard, NEC and Mannes. He gave a simply stunning performance of the Bach Cello Suite Number 1 in G, showing what phrasing and singing lines are all about.

Pianists Michael Adcock and Sarasota Orchestra’s Jonathan Spivey shared a piano keyboard for a charming work by Erik Satie for four hands, called “Trois morceaux en forme de Poire,” (Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear). Sounding like a delicious mix of Satie’s puns and wit with a soupçon of Poulenc and Debussy, the duo played it with sarcasm, bite, Chinoiserie and that French je ne sais qois, making it into a delicious bouillabaisse with just enough garlic to tickle the palate.

Mozart’s well-known Piano Quintet in E-flat, K.452, was next on the menu, and pianist Robert Levin, oboist Allan Vogel, clarinetist Moran Katz, bassoonist William Winstead and hornist William Purvis gave it an exquisitely light, but intense, reading that showed a beautiful blend and understanding of the style.

Finally, we had dessert: The Scherzo Tarentelle from the Septet by composer/conductor Adolphe Blanc, a Frenchman who began his work at the grand age of 13 at the Paris Conservatoire and never became very well-known. Violinist Martin Chalifour, violist James Dunham, cellist Desmond Hoebig and double bassist Lawrence gave a performance that left us feeling as if we’d landed in a creme brûlée.

How could that musical meal be followed? Next was the emotionally exhausting — but spiritually stimulating — orchestral concert, featuring the students with concertmaster, David Coucheron (a former SMF student and now the concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony), under the direction of the internationally renowned Hugh Wolff.

The mix of a Haydn Symphony, Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony made for a perfectly rounded musical evening, starting with Haydn’s Symphony Number 86 in D, which begins with the same four notes (plus one, albeit in a different key of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet), and then does what Haydn does best: plays games with rests and startles us with his ingenuity.

Hugh Wolff and the orchestra also startled us with a beautifully controlled, stylistically magical and sculpted reading that took us from the nuances of the slow movement to a dancing finale that had visions of Papageno flitting across the stage.

Copland’s Clarinet Concerto was written for Benny Goodman, and there have been many great renditions since its debut. But Moran Katz, playing it (unbelievably) for the first time in public, truly owned the piece. Her sensuous sound and magical dynamic range were nothing short of spectacular. This could become her signature work in the future, and she handled the enormous jumps in register and transitions from classic style to swinging jazz, lighting up the Opera House with the beauty of her sound.

It should be mentioned that, while Wolff conducted from a score for the Copland, he didn’t use one for either the Haydn or the final work, Mendelssohn’s Symphony Number 4. It was as if the music spewed from his hands and, being a wrist conductor (clear in movements and not needing unnecessary arm flailing), he brought out the very best in his orchestra.

The Mendelssohn was sprightly and jaunty with the precision of a classical symphony and the warmth of the romantic. I’ve said this before about a certain Beethoven symphony, but I have to use it again for the Mendelssohn: the bass line is the best in the business, and it was played by everyone at some point with true character.

The whole symphony was like a beautiful clarified butter — smooth, juicy and delectable. I’m still smiling.


Music Review: Artist Series Concerts 20th Anniversary

June 2nd, 2016Posted by admin


The local series celebrated two decades with a fun, entertaining evening.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: May 31, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The Artist Series Concerts, a series that has graced Sarasota for two decades, set out to celebrate its 20th anniversary with an evening of varied entertainment this Memorial Day weekend at the Historic Asolo Theater.

It turned out to be more entertaining than accurate in its performances and, except for an encore that derailed the best of intentions, it was a fun, successful evening.

All the performers were making return appearances on the series, and the program got off to a good start with a fanfare-like piece called “Fireworks,” by Roger Zare, who was the first recipient of the Artist Series’ scholarships, which helped see him through his studies at USC and the Peabody Institute, culminating in a doctorate from the University of Michigan. The piece, commissioned by Olivia Swann for the Artist Series, was played by pianists Lee Dougherty Ross (who, with her husband Jerold Ross, co-founded the series 20 years ago), and Don Bryn. There were visuals of fireworks projected on the screen behind the piano, but they turned out to be unnecessary, because the music spoke well for itself. A knuckle-breaker, the pair did it justice at the one keyboard.

Soprano Monica Pasquini, long a favorite with Sarasota audiences, returned home from her work in New York City with a group of songs and arias that took her from a treacherously difficult cycle by Milhaud (“Chansons de Ronsard”), to songs and arias by Delibes (“Les filles de Cadix”) and Donizetti (from “Linda di Chamounix”) and the beloved “Love is Where You Find It.” We’ve heard the charming soprano in the past, but this time, she seemed to be having vocal trouble, causing her pitch to sound inaccurate and the top of her voice to tend toward shrillness. Her sensitive pianist was Dougherty Ross.

She was followed by violinist Alexander Markov and pianist Keike Doerr, who began with a tranquil reading of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” in an interesting arrangement by Wilhelm. Markov, himself, tackled the well-known 24th Caprice of Paganini with pizzaz and, in some places — like the pizzicato variation and the following pianissimo section — a beautiful tone, but other moments were marred by some strange tempo changes. The pair concluded with Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen,” with a nice sense of the gypsy from both of them.

Perhaps the best performances of the evening came from baritone David McFerrin and pianist Don Bryn in some absolutely charming renditions of songs by Broadway favorites. McFerrin, who has impeccable diction and enunciation, gave a soulful performance of “Lonely Town,” from Bernstein’s “On the Town,” followed by a hilarious reading of Cole Porter’s equally hilarious “Tale of the Oyster.” “With a Song in My Heart” and “The Impossible Dream” were very much audience favorites.

Finally, duo pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe offered a group of pieces that included more crowd pleasers by Bernstein, Piazzolla and Katchaturian, not only with their four hands at the piano but also with occasional and interesting body-swoops inside the piano, plucking and muting strings for a variety of effects.

But that wasn’t the end of the program. There was an encore by Markov on a gold electric violin. He began with his own composition, which sounded like Vivaldi on acid, and concluded with an absolute travesty of our National Anthem that was worse than anything you’ve heard on YouTube or Facebook. His work on that electric violin short circuited an otherwise entertaining and joyous evening.


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra: ‘Triple Play’

May 16th, 2016Posted by admin


Sarasota Orchestra hits a home run with its Outdoor Pops concert.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: May 15, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The Sarasota Orchestra ended its 2015-2016 season this weekend with a smashing, fun, blow-out-of-a-concert under perfect skies at Ed Smith Stadium with a program meant to please everyone at some time during the evening. They called it “Triple Play” in honor of the three very different vocalists who were accompanied by this extremely versatile orchestra.

For the ensemble, itself, there was music by John Williams, John Philip Sousa, and Jule Styne. Andrew Lane conducted, em-ceed and joked with the sold-out crowd of some 4,000 and, for almost two hours, Sarasota had its own miniature Hollywood Bowl, Central Park and Tanglewood.

There were a few glitches here and there but nobody cared. No programs were handed out and the titles that were supposed to be shown to the audience went missing. The concession stands and cafe were poorly stocked, so most of us thrived on hot dogs, pop corn and Crackerjack, washed down by beer, soda and splits of wine. And the miking was, again, more suited to a rock concert than classical or pops. But, as we said, it didn’t matter.

Lane’s pops programming had something to please everyone at one time or another and please us he did.

The three vocalists took their turns at the microphones starting with jazz singer Carol McCartney offering renditions of Jobim’s “A Felicidade,” (in rather fractured Portuguese), a charming arrangement by Nelson Riddle of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” and a great, upbeat version of Lerner and Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” which were graceful and pleasing.

Next up to the plate was home town hero, Maria Wirries. Now almost 19 years old, Wirries made her debut with the Sarasota Orchestra when she was only 13. She was good then and she’s spectacular now. Having just finished her second year at Penn State where she’s part of the prestigious Music Theater program, her voice has grown in depth and projection. Her performances of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Children Will Listen” and “Memory,” were worthy of a Broadway ace with twice her experience. We’ve been watching Wirries as she’s developed and what we heard at this concert cements our impression that she’s got what it takes to make a major career. Even with the miking problems, she managed to impart nuance and beauty of voice that remind us of a young Audra McDonald.

We can’t really comment on Amy Whitcomb, the third vocalist, because she’s basically a rock singer and, well, I just don’t get that stuff. But she seemed to be making a whole bunch of people happy so I guess she succeeded where my ears and understanding failed. (Hey – I’m a classical critic and I don’t know from rock.)

The evening came to a glorious finale with a trio of greats: Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” featuring all three singers; the orchestra in a rousing and excellent performance of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever;” and fireworks in the outfield that knocked our socks off.


Music Review: ‘My Favorite Things’

May 9th, 2016Posted by admin


Artist Series Concerts presents the best of Rodgers and Hammerstein


Originally published in The Observer
Date: May 8, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota did some of “My Favorite Things” at the Historic Asolo over the weekend and the performances, which were both fun and illuminating, did feature some of my favorite things. It was a program filled with some of the best of Rodgers and Hammerstein, from “Oklahoma!” the duo’s first venture back in the 1940s, through “State Fair” and the rarely performed “Me and Juliet.”

Collaboration is the word of the day and the Artist Series, with the concert’s host and pianist, Joseph Holt, incorporated the artistry of the all-professional Gloria Musicae Singers as a very fine back-up group for a quartet of imported soloists: soprano Mara Bonde, mezzo Katherine Pracht, tenor Aaron Blake and baritone Marcus DeLoach.

Although the program, itself, was pure pleasure, the individual performances were mixed with some of the singers coming off above the others.

Holt had a good idea when he switched roles, using a tenor instead of a mezzo, for example, in “Something Wonderful,” from “The King and I.” It’s interesting to hear the difference in color a male voice can bring to a song usually sung by a woman. The same thing happened in the beloved “Climb Every Mountain,” from “The Sound of Music” and it was a refreshing twist to the classic song.

Holt also added color and variety to the program when he played the intricate “Carousel Waltz” on the Steinway, bringing almost as many colors and textures as a full symphony orchestra.

But it was the quartet of soloists, brought in from various parts of the country, who carried this nostalgic program to the audience. Standout among them was baritone Marcus DeLoach, whose fine voice and musicianship have been heard with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the New York City Opera and, believe it or not, the Trans-Siberian rock group. The most polished and professional of the singers, DeLoach soared across the footlights with dazzling renditions of “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” and several other staples of the Rodgers and Hammerstein repertoire.

Mezzo soprano Katherine Pracht used her warm, rich mezzo beautifully in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and, with DeLoach, in “I Have Dreamed.” And soprano Mara Bonde was charming but somewhat sluggish rhythmically in “Hello Young Lovers,” and “Do-Re-Mi,” while her performance of “A Wonderful Guy” was energetic and filled with fun.

Unfortunately, tenor Aaron Blake didn’t come off quite as well as his musical partners. Although he has a bright, clear voice, he didn’t seem very comfortable in the repertoire, frequently going up on both words and music, and even stopping to look over Holt’s shoulder at the score because he couldn’t remember the words of the landmark “Carefully Taught,” an unforgivable sin in performance conduct.

The Gloria Musicae men offered a frolicsome “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” but would have come off even better had they memorized this one song for the occasion. It’s hard to be a swearing sailor while you turn pages of a score.

You can’t lose with Rodgers and Hammerstein, especially when you have winning musicians to pull it off. This was a charming retrospective of American classics and it was good to see some very young faces in the audience, getting their first dose of real American classical music.


Review: ‘Josephine’

May 9th, 2016Posted by admin


The world-premiere musical explores the ups and downs of one of the most iconic entertainers in history.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: May 8, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Josephine Baker’s life should make great fodder for a Broadway musical. Baker was one of the great entertainers of the 20th century. Married numerous times, she always managed to maintain her independence. She was purportedly photographed more than any superstar of her generation. She worked successfully for the French Resistance. And, having a warm, nurturing side and being unable to bear children of her own, she adopted nearly a dozen orphans.

Making her story even better for the stage than all the plusses in her eventful life, she also had the downsides that make for real theater. She left her lovers, sometimes to her own emotional detriment. Her mother exploded her childhood dreams and tried to instill in her a sense of failure. And her own America never really accepted her into the society, fortune and fame she was able to find in Europe, especially France.

With all this wonderful stage baggage, one would think “Josephine,” the musical, would be a huge success, but the show, which just had its world premiere at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, with dreams of making it big on Broadway, falls short of the blazing spotlights in which it tries so hard to shine.

It’s not from lack of talent. The star-studded, multi-award-winning cast is as strong as any you could want. Deborah Cox, in the title role, is strong, energetic and drop-dead gorgeous.

Kevin Earley, her on-again, off-again friend, confidante and wanna-be lover, Jo Bouillon, makes a perfect foil, as he sings and dances his way from the orchestra, where he’s the Acting conductor (there’s the real conductor, Sinai Tabak, down in the bowels of the pit, whom we don’t meet until the bows at the end), to the stage, where he drifts in and out of Josephine’s rocky life with grace.

Mark Campbell, who plays the roles of both Prince Gustav VI of Sweden, and the notorious Nazi, Hermann Goering, is rich-voiced, and suitably cool or dastardly, depending on the wig he’s wearing at the time.

The young, vivacious Tori Bates is sprightly and buoyant as the young Josephine. She chases her older self around, leaving shadows of her difficult childhood to follow her grown-up twin with an often annoying presence that eventually incorporates into a fully formed, Freudian adult, singing and dancing her way into our hearts like Shirley Temple in a nightmare.

And Michael Keyloun as Sven, with his lover JouJou (Matthew McGee), form a funny, occasionally touching, partnership as the secondary love interest, singing, dancing and prancing through this convoluted cartoon of a show.

Then there’s Lynette DuPree, whose Bricktop just about steals the show with a belting voice and mesmerizing stage presence that take over every moment she’s on stage. And thereby hangs the problem with “Josephine.”

Try as he may, director/choreographer Joey McKneely, who made such a hit with his recent revival of “West Side Story” at the Asolo, just couldn’t quite make a silk purse of this sow’s ear-of-a-show he was given by composer Stephen Dorff, lyricist John Bettis and librettists Ellen Weston and Mark Hampton.

“Josephine” is a caricature of itself. A comic book with pretensions of being a soulful retelling of an important life. And it leaves us with all the gloss and glitz but none of the guts of the heart. Every time we come close to real feelings and emotions, we’re confronted with dancing girls and strutting page boys breaking the tension and mood.

There’s something for everyone in “Josephine.” Too much, in fact. If you’re in the minority, just wait. Your joke will come. Even singers get the brunt of a joust or two: “What do you see when you look up a soprano’s skirt?” we’re asked. “A tenor,” we’re told and not even given time to boo or groan.

Costume designer Eduardo Sicangco is spot-on with a multitude of magnificent gowns but, perhaps in a switch to more modesty from the original nudity Josephine Baker displayed at the Follies Bergére, the imposing dancing girls are encased in mesh body stockings that sag here, gap there and are definitely unglamorous.

Still, the costumes, along with scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III’s Erte-sculpted sets, are magnificent and worth the price of admission.

Caricature or cartoon, “Josephine” is a musical but here, again, there are problems because, while Steve Orich’s arrangements are deft, Dorff’s songs are distinctly derivative. Every song sounds like something from an old Broadway ghost — “Les Miz,” “Do I Hear a Waltz,” “Carousel,” “Evita,” “A Chorus Line,” “Dream Girls” — all present to entertain us, no matter what the stage situation.

Much like Josephine, the person, “Josephine,” the musical, has its problems, starting with the characters’ lack of real personality. It’s glitzy, glossy entertainment with a great cast, but it needs one important ingredient: soul.


Music review: ‘Cello Time’

April 25th, 2016Posted by admin


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.