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: ‘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.


Music review: Curtis Institute of Music

April 18th, 2016Posted by admin


A beautiful performance, but lacking in emotion.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Music review: La Musica Program III

April 12th, 2016Posted by admin


La Musica offers a satisfying afternoon of chamber music


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks 7: ‘Legends’

April 4th, 2016Posted by admin


Sarasota Orchestra closes its season with a legendary performance.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Music review: Sarasota Opera Verdi Cycle Grand Finale Concert

March 22nd, 2016Posted by admin


Sarasota Opera closes historic Verdi Cycle with an impassioned performance.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks 6

March 14th, 2016Posted by admin


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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