Originally published in The Observer
Date: May 13, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist
I double dare anyone to say Sarasota isn’t one of the most musically abundant cities in the country. In one Sunday, we attended a concert of mostly 20th and 21st century music by Sybarite5 in Holley Hall, ran home to feed our dog, and then waltzed over to the Historic Asolo to spend the evening with Lehar’s “Merry Widow.” You couldn’t have two more contrasting musical experiences, yet they were both satisfying and musically fascinating.
We recently told you about Sybarite5’s Forward Festival, a series of five concerts in as many venues around Sarasota, focusing on music of almost every era performed by the Sybarites (violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violist Angela Pickett, cellist Laura Metcalf, and bassist Louis Levitt) with a variety of friends including mezzo Blythe Gaissert, pianist Djordge Nesic, the Chroma Quartet, percussionist George Nickson and harpist Cheryl Losey.
The Festival’s grand finale took place the afternoon of May 11 in Holley Hall, which was set up cabaret-style, with tables, nibbles of cheese and crackers, champagne and an intimate, convivial atmosphere. All the musicians were participating this time and their program, which opened with “The Shark,” a jazzy, dancing, rhythmic piece by Astor Piazolla, set the stage for things to come, ranging from experimental musical sounds that were both emotionally and dramatically intriguing, to more conventional forays into styles from jazz to impressionism.
Among the more absorbing works on the program were some pieces by Radiohead, the British rock band that’s influenced myriad classical musicians over the years. Hearing Syberite5 play “No Surprises,” surprised me into wanting to hear more of this music that’s beautiful, tonal and used mesmerizing melodies over Vivaldi-like pizzicatos. Another of their works, “Weird Fishes,” was more rhythmically complex with electronic sounds acoustically produced, resulting in a melding of John Adams and Philip Glass — simple on the surface but complicated in its core.
Sybarite5 and Chroma joined forces for “Last Round,” a work composed by Osvoldo Golijov in honor of Piazolla as “A sublimated tango … two quartets confront each other…with the bass in between,” we were told. Words, while adding a personal touch, weren’t needed because the swirling music spoke well for itself. Ending without musical resolution, it was one of the most intriguing pieces on the program.
But then there was Debussy’s well-known “Danses sacree et profane” performed with magic by Sarasota Orchestra’s principal harpist, Cheryl Losey, with Syberite5 and Chroma. This work is generally done with a conductor but this ensemble held together beautifully without one, except for one thing: it lacked an overall concept and interpretation. It’s fine for a chamber ensemble to be conductorless, especially a group as well-honed and precise as this one. But a leader would have given the work a focus it lacked. Losey, though, positively burned the harp, giving it a glistening, glowing performance.
Another work, Andy Akiho’s “Revolve,” written for Sybarite5, and based on a five note pattern with rushing, knocking, plucking, slapping sounds, had its world premiere at the concert, and the group — with Gaissert — performed a new version of “Goodnight Moon,” a lovely setting of the children’s book, by Glen Roven (who heard the performance, live, via Skype … probably a first for Holley Hall).
The most eloquent work of the afternoon was “Coming Together,” by Frederic Rzewski. Here, Syb5, Gaissert, pianist Djordje Nesic and George Nickson on marimba, painted a mesmerizingly frightening and disturbing aural portrait of insanity. Gaissert, who proved to be as able a narrator and actress as she is a singer, used a sort of Sprechstimme to speak her lines rhythmically and robot-like, as if in a trance, first like a sci-if creature, and then as she repeated the same story about her excellent “physical and emotional health,” we realized she was about to crack. Finally, the repetitious script devolved into “I talk to guards and inmates,” with her instrumental colleagues joining in with pointed phrases, showing she had, indeed, fractured her personality. To do this in music takes mastery and, disturbing as it was, this madness in music was also emotionally powerful and beautifully performed.
Imagine leaving with that kind of insanity buzzing in your head, only to be whirled into the waltzes and melodies of Lehar’s “Merry Widow.” It was jolting and a little discomfiting but also a welcome respite from a Daliesque afternoon.
The Artist Series Concerts offered three performances of the “Merry Widow” at the Historic Asolo over the weekend, in an encapsulated version arranged, choreographed and directed by Joy McIntyre, who also served as the charming narrator, holding the far-fetched but fetching story together.
Sung in English with simply magnificent videos of Viennese palaces, gardens and ballrooms as the backdrop, it was a fun and very welcome evening. The men in the cast — baritone Andrew Garland, as Count Danilo; tenor Gregory Schmidt as Count de Rosillon; and baritone John Fiorita as Baron Zeta — fared better than the women. Garland, whose rich baritone soared through “Maxim’s” and, with Schmidt, roared through “Girls, Girls, Girls,” was particularly effective as an excellent singer and actor. While soprano Lindsay Russell showed a lovely, light voice as Valencienne, Susana Diaz, as the Widow, had a garbled, strangely produced soprano that was covered and not very appealing.
Still, you can’t argue with such beautiful music and, with members of the Gloria Musicae Singers in smaller roles, this “Merry Widow” was seductive, fun and heartening. The Can-Can scene (“Little Paris Ladies), sung and danced by Gloria Musicae, showed — shall we say — an entirely different side of this ensemble that really needed to be seen to be believed. Having sung with this group for many years, all I could think was, Better them than me.
The star of the show was the off-stage pianist and musical director, Joseph Holt who sounded like a full orchestra with stylish, polished playing. As much as the audience enjoyed the singers and dancers on stage, when Holt finally came out for his curtain call, he was given the largest ovation, with great justification.
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