MUSIC REVIEW: ‘South Pacific’

November 17th, 2014Posted by admin

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

If ever there were a musical that represented what Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director of the Asolo Rep, has been striving for in the past few years in its “The American Character — Our Lives on Stage” series, it’s got to be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” Rocketing onto Broadway in 1949, just four years after the end of World War II, “South Pacific” attacks issues of America, from patriotism to racism, and it does it with a music score that took their landmark work in “Oklahoma” and “Carousel” to a new dimension.

On opening night at the Asolo, we met several people who’d never seen this classic before, and their reactions put me in mind of what it must have been like to be in the audience opening night 65 years ago when no one had yet heard the romance of “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime” and “This Nearly Was Mine,” or the hilarity and exuberance of “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “Honey Bun” and “A Wonderful Guy,” or the radical, barrier-breaking foresight of “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.”

I was 5 when I saw my first “South Pacific” starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. The most recent was at Lincoln Center about five years ago. But for sheer perfection, musically, dramatically, scenically and artistically, the Asolo wins the prize.

Kelly Felthous is the closest singing-actress to Martin’s model I’ve come across. She has a sweet innocence that gets knocked on its ear when she discovers she’s not only fallen for a Frenchman who lives on a lonely island, but that Frenchman has a checkered past, having killed a man in France, and having lived with a Polynesian (called “colored”) woman and had two children with her. All the naïveté of Felthous’ Nellie Forbush is beautifully crafted into her singing and acting, and although her unworldliness remains throughout the show, you can see her grow in understanding and integrity through the lyrics Hammerstein gave Rodgers to paint a full-blown woman of intellect.

Ben Davis is a younger Emile De Becque than we’re used to seeing, but he’s also the most sympathetic of them. It’s a little hard to grasp the love he develops for Nellie in such a short time, a love that changes his life. But because Davis is such a consummate actor with a voice that reminds us of John Raitt and Alfred Drake, we weep for him as Nellie flees his home at the thought of being involved with a man so foreign to her way of life.

The Asolo’s Bloody Mary is taken on by Loretta Ables Sayre, who’s played the role innumerable times, including the Lincoln Center production. She uses her honeyed voice as a great actor uses the tools she has to be the sarcastic, snappish, prickly person Mary is without ever losing the ability to charm those around her like a hypnotist with exotic powers.

And Anthony Festa’s sweet, sincere tenor is perfect for his honest, uncontrived portrayal of Lt. Joe Cable.

Brad Haak, with permission from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, orchestrated and arranged the music for this production so that fewer than 10 musicians were needed for this enormous score and, for the most part, he did a fine job. We missed the blare of the brass but not as much as we thought we would. The Overture, so intrinsic to the play, itself, lost a little when some of the music was cut and the harmonies inexplicably changed. But he did a fine job with all the underscoring (music played under dialogue) Rodgers wrote for this music-drama.

Music Director William Waldrop kept his small forces in check throughout, making the most of the winds and percussion so they were, properly, an important part of the action on stage, and being sure he always kept proper pace with the conversations on stage, as if music and talk were perfectly choreographed. Some tempos were definitely different from those we’ve heard in the past — “This Nearly Was Mine” was so slow it took nearly twice the time (and breath) it originally took — but they worked for the production and may have set a new standard for future singers.

“South Pacific” is such a magnificently constructed piece of music theater, it’s impossible to separate the music from the play; the acting from the singing. And the Asolo production, with its magnificent staging and music-making, enriches and fortifies “The American Character” with the spirit Rodgers and Hammerstein intended 65 years ago. What a great anniversary gift.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks I: All Russian Program

November 13th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 9, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The stars were shining brightly this past Sunday afternoon when Anu Tali led the Sarasota Orchestra in a blockbuster of an all-Russian program that was enough to outshine Sirius, seriously. Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Mussorgsky are great Eastern stars themselves. Put them together with Tali, prize-winning pianist Alexander Toradze and the dazzling musicians of the Sarasota Orchestra in a program seemingly designed to show off the ensemble’s stellar players, and you have enough dazzle to light up the musical skies.

In Shostakovich’s suite from his film score, “The Gadfly,” the warmth and silvery sound of the strings, especially in the gorgeous, well-known “Romance,” with concertmaster Daniel Jordan’s beautiful solo, was moving and exhilarating. Sounding like a Russian John Williams (who may well have emulated Shostakovich in some of his works), “The Gadfly” uses colors from muted to scorching, with the militaristic sound of Russian soldiers’ boots tramping across the Steppes like sure-footed avengers. Yet Tali brought out the sensitivity of the composer’s romantic side, too, making this a beautifully sculpted performance.

Toradze, who’s known Tali for many years from their studies and work in St. Petersburg (Russia) but hasn’t, until this weekend, performed with her, is an all-body, muscular pianist of the Russian Bear tradition. Yet he never bangs or uses his strength and emotional zest to show off. His performance Sunday of the exuberant Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 was thrilling. Tali and the Orchestra supported his vigorous performance, while never underestimating the composer’s penchant for sudden mood, color and tempo changes, and knitted the transitions together seamlessly. This is a brash, bold work that takes strength from everyone concerned; a blockbuster that’s both exhausting and exhilarating, and the fact that Toradze has recorded it and Prokofiev’s other four piano concertos, with no one less than Valery Gergiev, made the piece feel very much at home in all hands.

One of the interesting things about this particular concerto is its resemblance to Poulenc’s music for orchestra and piano(s). Or, maybe it’s the other way around. But no matter how you look at it or hear it, Prokofiev and Poulenc share a certain insouciance, a humor that’s very, very French. Poulenc’s is more tongue-in-cheek, while Prokofiev’s is mocking and sardonic. But the wit is there, and Toradze’s mastery of the style combined with Tali’s musical understanding and the Orchestra’s prowess made this an extraordinary performance.

Toradze, whom  audience and orchestra members alike deservedly cheered, gave us a gift of two brief but impeccably played encores by Prokofiev: an excerpt from “Vision Fugitive” (which he called “The Clock” because of its ticking qualities) and the wild finale of the composer’s Sonata No. 7. He immediately handed the flowers brought to him onstage to violinist Jennifer Best Takeda, who looked both pleased and nonplussed.

The concert concluded with a star-studded portrait of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Originally written for piano, it was Ravel’s orchestration that brought it into the popular spotlight. Interestingly, Tali decided to go back to the original piano score and, in doing so, kept Ravel’s insightful colors but also dug deeply into the music to make this performance purer and more transparent than many we’ve heard in the past.

One of the many stars of this “Pictures” was a gigantic bell — weighing in at a hefty 500 pounds — and brought to Sarasota on loan from the Dallas Symphony, specially for this resounding concert. And resound it did. One musician joked she thought it was the Liberty Bell without the crack, but, when principal percussionist George Nickson struck it with his mighty clapper, we thought heaven’s gates had opened. And our ears are still ringing.

Yellow flowers were brought to conductor Anu Tali, who, with a twinkle in her eye, added her bouquet, again, to Takeda’s growing collection. But, there was more. Tali gave us a Russian encore, “Winter Roads,” from Georgy Sviridov’s “The Snowstorm.” It swirled like a scene from “Anna Karenina” but ended happily with an entrancing flourish on the celeste, which the Orchestra’s pianist, Jonathan Spivey, deftly played.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Opera — Opening of Fall Season (‘Pagliacci’)

November 2nd, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 2, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

It was Halloween. The wind was howling, and strange creatures were prowling Sarasota’s downtown streets. But inside the Sarasota Opera House, a triumphant cast of singers and instrumentalists were recreating Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s 122 year old classic, “Pagliacci.” No matter what kind of costumes the Halloween revelers chose to wear, none was as frightening or realistic as the tragic Commedia dell’arte scenario being reenacted on the stage of the Sarasota Opera House, because Leoncavallo knew how to turn theatrical mayhem into verismo intensity, bridging the gap between staged drama and real life tragedy.

This “Pagliacci” is a revival of an earlier Sarasota Opera production. We’d seen it before but this was revitalized. In fact, it was one of the best productions of this classic we’ve seen because all the important facets came together: excellent singing, believable acting, staging that drew us into the action, lighting (Ken Yunker), costumes (Howard Tsvi Kaplan), and scenery (David Gordon), that looked fresh and complemented each other, and an orchestra that gave support to the singers and made this an opera that coalesced into what opera should be.

It was the Sarasota Orchestra, moonlighting with the Opera, that lent its super sound to what was happening on stage. And it was Sarasota Opera Artistic Director, Victor deRenzi, who held it all together, keeping the proper balance between principals and chorus on stage and players in the pit, like a well-oiled machine.

Stage director, Stephanie Sundine managed, through little details that made all the difference, to turn a hard-to-believe 19th century verismo Italian opera into a piece of drama that could easily happen today. Jealousies, misrepresentations, deceptions and deceits are timeless and, when they’re set to passionate music, they became alive in Sundine’s very able and imaginative operatic concept.

The music, itself, is timeless and well-known. There are few people who haven’t heard Pagliaccio’s famous aria, “Vesti la giubba,” as the actor, in clown’s white face sings about the horror of trying to make people laugh while he’s crying, inside. Michael Robert Hendrick, took on the tragic role of Canio, the head of the traveling company of actors, whose real-life sufferings are mirrored by Pagliaccio, the cuckolded character he plays on stage. You’ll remember him as the brilliant acting-singer whose portrayal of Lennie in the operatic setting of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” at Sarasota Opera a few years ago, brought us all to tears. This time, he brought a depth of character seldom seen in this role. Rather than riding on the gleaming quality of his voice, as most tenors do in “Pagliacci,” Hendrick added his profound ability to embody a role, making his Canio more than just a striking voice. Yes, he was often a little too on top of the pitch but we assume his sharp intonation was due to opening night excitement and these ears will take sharp over flat, anytime.

Veronica Mitina’s Nedda, Canio’s wife who cheats on him on stage and off, was beautifully rendered, not only in her big aria, “Qual fiamma” but, especially in her on-stage musical and dramatic relationships with her on and off-stage lovers. Hers is a big, sometimes metallic voice and there were times we wanted more float and nuance in her singing but the fact that she, like Hendrick, embodied her role made her persona colorful enough that we figured the nuances would come with future performances.

We’ve never heard Marco Nistico, the evening’s Tonio, sound better. His opening Prologue was resounding. And later, as he became the hunchback, Taddeo in the play-within-the play, his evil image matched his resilient, resonant voice.

Nathan Munson, the studio artist who took on the roles of the actor Peppe (aka Beppe in other productions but then, what’s in a name…) and Arlecchino in the play, made my ears stand up with his first line. He may be a studio artist this year but he’s a tenor to listen for in the future. That is a voice to reckon with.

And Brian James Myer, a young baritone from Las Vegas, also making his Sarasota Opera debut, handled his part as Silvio, Nedda’s real-life lover, with both voice and character to make him stand out in the crowd. The chorus was trained and blended to perfection by Roger Bingaman, with just enough stage business to make us believe they were villagers, anticipating a fun day at the theater that was turned, inexplicably, into mayhem and murder.

On another note: Instead of pairing “Pagliacci” with “Cavalleria Rusticana,” as most companies do, Sarasota Opera decided to offer only the Leoncavallo but, to round-out the abbreviated evening and give a nod to Mascagni, the Orchestra and deRenzi had some stunning moments of their own in the spotlight with the Intermezzos from the composer’s “L’amico Fritz” and “Cavalleria rusticana.” A nice touch and a great way to highlight the instrumentalists.

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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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