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: ‘Guys and Dolls’

November 22nd, 2016Posted by admin


Asolo Rep’s production was authentic and musically faithful in every way.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 22, 2016
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

Since its original Broadway opening in 1950, “Guys and Dolls” has seen several Broadway revivals, a 1955 movie — which cut five songs from the original score and added three new ones — and a mind-boggling number of community, high-school and college productions. Its charm seldom wanes, especially when given such a slick, thoughtful and accurate professional revival by Asolo Rep in its season opener.

In this production, all of Loesser’s fine original score and lyrics are intact and sparkling, reminding us again of how well crafted the show is musically, with every song fitting the situation perfectly in both lyrics and melody. The opening “Runyonland,” serves also as an overture, providing all the hustle and bustle of that era’s Times Square characters, together with snippets of the songs to come. And the “Fugue for Tinhorns,” an all-time favorite of mine, is a reminder that only with music can you have three people expressing three thoughts at the same time and still be understandable. Think of the “Rigoletto” Quartet or the Sextet from “Lucia.”

The nine-piece orchestra, ably led by Sinai Tabak, sounded larger and quite complete, using no synthesized sounds (no doubt in respect of the show’s vintage) and the use of a French horn provided additional warmth. Tabak alternately led and accompanied the singers beautifully with a mostly excellent balance, while giving his band pretty much free rein in the big dance numbers. Sound design and amplification of singers by Kevin Kennedy was subtle and sympathetic, without any of the blasting forth we hear all too often in the theater, even on Broadway.

“Guys and Dolls” is from the era of “legit” Broadway singing, as opposed to the often harsh, loud and somewhat ugly sounds produced and seemingly demanded by shows and writing these days. These performers all sang — and sang well — especially the two female leads, Audrey Campbell as Sarah Brown and Veronica J. Keuhn as Miss Adelaide.

These vigorously talented ladies gave us all we wanted and more: Campbell, showed a lovely soprano in “ I’ll Know,” and later knocked us for a loop with “If I Were a Bell.” Keuhn’s Miss Adelaide really delivers the goods in her featured numbers, “Adelaide’s Lament,” “Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink.”

Wisely choosing to have just a good, basic “New Yawk” accent, rather than exaggerated Brooklynese, she caught Adelaide’s mood and character perfectly. Chris Hoch’s Nathan Detroit and Todd Buonopane as Nicely-Nicely Johnson were outstanding among the men, both in character and voice, while Cole Burden’s Skye Masterson offered good voice and style — but with a bit too much of a cartoonish Brando-like tilt of the jaw for my taste. Diction and phrasing were good throughout, and the mostly male chorus provided a virile husky sound in the big numbers.

The “Eleven O’Clock Number,” the last big number of any show before the final scene, was a blockbuster rendering of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” delivered with mucho gusto by Buonopane and the chorus, aided and abetted by the soaring soprano of Fredena J. Williams as General Cartwright, reminding me of Loesser’s “Brotherhood of Man” from his later “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

All in all, a delightful evening, musically faithful in every way, even to the retention of “Hollander-izing” in Adelaide’s “Mink” number, a then process for cleaning and preserving furs. Now that’s authentic!


Music review: ensemblenewSRQ

November 18th, 2016Posted by admin


In just its second concert, ensemblenewSRQ earns its place as Sarasota’s premier source of new music.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 17, 2016
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

ensemblenewSRQ — remember that name.

In only the second concert of its inaugural season, it is already the group to hear for new music in Sarasota. Not to be confused with modern music, which as a genre is a quick turn-off to some, new music is just that: new music.

Three of the four works in this concert at the First Congregational Church were less than five years old, and the other was written as long ago as 1994. Founded by George Nickson and Samantha Bennett, both principal players in the Sarasota Orchestra, ensemblenewSRQ is a collective of performers — many from the Sarasota Orchestra — which may vary from one work to another, depending on the composer’s requirements.

This recent concert, themed “Gardens, Clouds and Streams,” opened with “Entr’Acte” (2011) by Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw for string quartet (Samantha Bennett and Chung-Yon Hong, violins; Jonas Benson, viola; and Natalie Helm, cello), which is at times an ethereal musing in modified Minuet form, alternating unusual string sounds of harmonics, left-hand pizzicati, whisper-light brush strokes, and at other times, with more traditional musical passages, providing, as stated by Shaw “a view from the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.”

“Six Japanese Gardens” (1994) by Kaija Saariaho for percussion and electronics, was given a virtuoso performance by George Nickson, playing a veritable plethora of percussive instruments. Just listing them would take all this allotted space. Combining live percussion with prerecorded voices and electronics (controlled by the soloist) each of these “gardens” presented a completely different sonic portrait, sounding as if it were performed by an ensemble of several players, rather than one extremely busy percussionist. Saariaho’s opera “L’Amour DeLoin” will premiere this season at the Metropolitan Opera.

“all streams reach the sea at last” (2011) by Elizabeth Ogonek, featured Betsy Hudson Traba and Francesca Arnone, flutes, alto flute and piccolos; George Nickson and Aaron Nix, percussion and Jesse Martins, piano. Consisting of widely contrasting sections, from fluttering “watery sounds” to some very active and stormy ones, each movement utilizes flutes, piano and percussion in an absolute kaleidoscope of sound and musical color, each ending in the tranquility of “reaching the open sea at last.”

The final work, “Prince of Clouds” (2012) by Anna Clyne, was completed at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in nearby Englewood, and featured Jennifer Best Takeda and Samantha Bennett, solo violins, with a 12-piece string ensemble, expertly conducted by George Nickson. This work, in what is probably best described as mixed contemporary concerto grosso style, alternates musical dialogues between soloists and ensemble, soloists with each other and complete ensemble passages.

Each of these musicians is an accomplished individual performer, and every musical facet of the entire evening was presented with authority, precision and musicality, whether by soloist, duet or total ensemble.

The entire program gave listeners an opportunity to participate by forming mental images and scenes as they wished, guided by what can only be called the interactive, evocative and impressionistic beauty of the music performed.

And if you hadn’t noticed it already, the entire evening was devoted to the music of women composers, proving again that music is indeed music, and gender has nothing to do with it.


Opera review: ‘The Secret World of Og’

November 14th, 2016Posted by admin


With ‘The Secret World of Og,’ the Sarasota Opera showed youth opera at its finest.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 13, 2016
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

A fall season highlight is the annual Sarasota Youth Opera production by the Sarasota Opera, arguably the only opera company to present operas by and for youth on its main stage every year. I’m always impressed by the quality of singing and acting and the ingenuity of everyone connected with these splendid productions. Not “children’s shows,” but fully mounted productions with lighting, costumes, staging, an orchestra and all the stagecraft expected from a regular main-stage production.

This year’s journey to “The Secret World of OG”, a U.S. premiere, is a prime example of youth opera at its finest. The opera, based on the book by Pierre Burton, has both music and libretto by Dean Burry, whose charming opera “The Hobbit,” was produced by Sarasota Youth Opera last year.

The green people of Og live underground and have only one word, “Og”, in their vocabulary. Their world is one of make-believe and role playing, drawn from objects and books they have “borrowed” from children of the world above. Penny, Pamela, Patsy, Peter and Paul — known as Pollywog (this opera positively percolates with perky, profound alliteration) are children who delight in playing pretend.

Penny, Peter and Paul follow two of the green people down into a tunnel under their playhouse and are eventually captured by Ogs and rescued by Patsy, Pamela and Cheshire the dog in a series of escapades careening through that make-believe world.

These people of Og, beautifully sung and acted by at least 65 of the 85 youth opera members in the cast, have a great time singing and dancing an extended number using only the word “Og” in every possible permutation, which is priceless, then from time to time comment on the events in true Greek chorus fashion. Their only other words are from those characters in the books they have purloined from the world above and made their own.

The result is a perfect plethora of scenes with Ogs as Wyatt Earp, Captain Hook and Smee from Peter Pan, and rather famous spies, each scene flowing smoothly from one to the other with nary a pause or break in the mood.

This charming piece was brought to life by a talented group of young singers, including the five peripatetic protagonists: Katherine Herbert as Penny, Aubree Zern as Pamela, Dominique Cecchetti as Patsy, Samantha Lane as Peter and Ursula Kushner as Paul (Pollywog). Hunter Thorkelson is Earless the cat, and Astrid McIntyre is Yukie the dog. Important smaller roles were Griffin Stahlmann as the butcher, Pablo Gonzalez as the sheriff and Sky Stahlmann as Hook. Principal voices were discreetly amplified to help prevent oversinging, and it would have been a help to have the dialogue amplified, as well. The orchestra was ably conducted by Jesse Martins, who didn’t miss a cue, using Burry’s excellent orchestration commissioned by the Sarasota Opera.

Ken Yunker’s lighting of the extremely clever and cartoonish sets by Donna and Mark Buckalter enhanced the atmosphere of the opera from the playhouse of the children to the deep depths and caves of the world of Og. I continue to be astonished by the ingenious staging of Martha Collins as she directs these productions. All too often the staging of youth operas consists of “controlling traffic,” but each person on this stage was a definite character with every movement skillfully timed and executed in mood with the music. Collins’ choreography in the big chorus line was a crowd pleaser.

Burry’s score is eclectic but charming, bringing us ever-so-slight reminders of Copland, Prokofiev, a little Poulenc and a lot of Burry. The character scenes are scored in their styles — lifted on purpose from hoe-downs, pirate chanties and even a hint of James Bond — but all still Burry. Melodic lines are certainly within the scope of voices of this age, and they created lovely melodies while keeping the story moving.

It was a delightful evening, and the lower floor of the Opera House was packed with a lot of families, each seeming to have a bouquet of flowers for these young performers. And there is a moral: You can pretend to be whomever you want to be, but in the end —you’re only exactly who you are.


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra: Masterworks I

November 7th, 2016Posted by admin


The Sarasota Orchestra tackled treacherous territory with clarity and balance, showcasing the excellence of these musicians.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 6, 2016
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

After opening the season with several concerts of chamber music, the Sarasota Orchestra returned to its strongest suit, the Masterworks Series, with a concert that allowed every facet of its jewel to sparkle.

These days, many orchestras feature their own players in solo roles outside the brief passages in the repertoire, and the Sarasota Orchestra continued this tradition in fine fashion by featuring Concertmaster Daniel Jordan as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. One of the most familiar concerti in the repertoire, it puts big demands on the soloist, especially since the three movements are usually performed without pause.

After a somewhat shaky start, Jordan settled into a solid musical performance — especially in the lyrical second movement — and seemed to enjoy the pyrotechnics of the finale. Unfortunately, some of his sound didn’t project well, partially because of the spotty Van Wezel acoustics, and partially because Jordan’s sound is not of a take-no-prisoners quality, but rather is more refined and gentle, quite similar to that of the late Joseph Silverstein, longtime concertmaster of the Boston Symphony and Sarasota Music Festival Faculty.

Speaking of taking no prisoners, that is exactly what occurred when the orchestra gave its rafter-rousing performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” after intermission.

Those who consider the “Rite of Spring” modern music and organized cacophony, need to be reminded that this piece is 103 years old. It might have been new then, with its continuing complexity of rhythms, meter changes and cross rhythms that almost outpace the fact that it pushes most instruments — and players — to the limits of their abilities, including the conductor. But these days, the “Rite” as it’s usually referred to, is in the repertoire of almost every professional orchestra — and even those of university and conservatory orchestras.

Originally a ballet, this music can be considered a journey in orchestral color, an exercise in rhythm and a showcase for the modern symphony orchestra. There were 105 players on the stage Friday, all giving their utmost in this great work. The “Rite” was performed by this orchestra several seasons ago, and this performance gives even more indication of the increasing quality of this ensemble. The changes are most noticeable in the increased quality of the strings, and the consistency of the already superb wind sections. Several personnel changes have been made this season, as players migrate from this orchestra to larger orchestras around the country, and these changes certainly work.

Anu Tali was at her peak in not only guiding the players through this prickly score, but also in controlling and contouring it as a true dramatic work. From its quiet opening through the various explosions of brass, winds and percussion, the orchestra played with a clarity and balance that truly showcases the excellence of these musicians.

The “Rite” is rife with treacherous solo passages in almost every section, and each one was played to perfection. At the end, Tali gave each solo player and section well-earned individual bows, to a continuing ovation from the excited and pleased audience.

The concert opened with a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, again emphasizing the increased sonority and excellence of the string sections.

And at the end of the evening, Tali addressed the audience, saying, “After this piece, we have no encore. Stravinsky has said it all.”

And indeed he has, because it’s now mainstream, folks. And no longer modern.


Opera review: ‘Don Pasquale’

November 1st, 2016Posted by admin


An evening of rollicking fun at Sarasota Opera’s season opener.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: October 31, 2016
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

As welcome as the cooler, drier breezes of fall, Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” arrived on the stage of the Sarasota Opera House Friday night for its first visit.

Greeted by a near-capacity house, this new production is a wonderful relief from the quadrennial cacophony of speeches and rallies.

The story is an old one: Don Pasquale, a rich older bachelor, disinherits his nephew to take a young bride, is thwarted by a plot to marry what he believes to be a sweet young thing from a convent, only to be duped into thinking that she is the exact opposite, a shrewish extravagant bully, turning Pasquale’s life upside down. Then, while reality is waiting to surface, more minor complications arise, in true Comedia dell’arte tradition. But of course, all ends well with happiness and forgiveness all around.

The opera, which premiered in Paris in 1843, is considered the last of the great buffo operas. It is a treasure trove of melody with all the champagne bubbles of a Rossini opera as well as Donizetti’s lilting waltz tunes, setting the stage for Offenbach’s later comic operas.

Written for four of the great singers of that time, “Don Pasquale” has big vocal demands in every role — and Sarasota Opera’s singers certainly rose to the challenge. Marco Nistico was singing his first Pasquale, and even though he lacked a bit of basso heft in his hearty baritone, he was completely convincing as the old codger.

As Ernesto, Hak Soo Kim’s tenor is both darker and fuller than in his earlier appearances here and was a delight to hear, especially the offstage serenade with harp that opens the final scene. Baritone Gideon Dabi was big of voice and gesture as Dr. Malatesta — the engineer of the plot to dupe Pasquale — in his beautifully sung aria and duets with Norina and Pasquale. Both Dabi and Nistico were outstanding in the machine-gun patter of their Act 3 duet, which received a welcome encore — cleverly added to the staging.

Angela Mortellaro as Norina virtually dominated every scene she was in, from her opening scene and aria, beautifully sung with a lovely solid and secure sound and coloratura and high notes to burn, to the duets with Malatesta and Pasquale, and all the ensembles, once again showing the excellence of the singers of Sarasota Opera.

All the stage goings on were skillfully planned and staged by Stephanie Sundine, and her singing actors (or acting singers) were completely convincing, especially Nistico — a slim man padded to be portly.

The Sarasota Orchestra was in the pit and played flawlessly for the knowledgable conducting of Victor DeRenzi. Especially outstanding were the solos of Natalie Helm, cello, Michael Dobrinksi, trumpet, and harpist Shelly Du. No credit was listed for the design of the excellent set, which was lighted by Ken Yunker with his usual flair, enhancing the fine period costumes of Howard Tsvi Kaplan and Audrey Bernardin’s wigs and makeup.

Excellent subtitles were provided by Words for Music, and the final line of the opera, “Old men who marry are not very smart,” elicited laughter from the audience, which had indeed experienced an evening of rollicking and roaring fun.

The presentation and singing of Opera Buffa are indeed tough animals to tame, since there is such a fine line between overacting, oversinging, and “just right,” but this production of “Don Pasquale” by the Sarasota Opera comes pretty darn close — as close as you’re going to see for a long time. And “Pasquale” is here until Nov. 13.


Music Review: Eighth Blackbird at Ringling International Arts Festival

October 18th, 2016Posted by admin


Eighth Blackbird offers vivacious talent, but lacks in presentation.


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

I asked a rhetorical question in a recent column: What is music?

I was taught that music is organized sound. Anyway, that’s what they said in olden times. What Eighth Blackbird, a group of extremely talented musicians (Nathalie Joachim, flutes; Michael Maccaferri, clarinets; Yvonne Lam, violin; Nick Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion; and Adam Marks, piano), presented at the Historic Asolo for the Ringling International Arts Festival was certainly organized.

They played it from their iPads, varying interestingly in size from smart phone to tome, so it was written out and organized by a composer for performance as written.

Some, like Robert Hornstein’s “Conduit” and Timo Andres’ “Checkered Shade” were vaguely tonal, with “Conduit” traversing, ascending scales built loosely around a root tone. Others, “By-by Huey” by Ted Hearne and Jacob Cooper’s “Cast,” were harder to decipher but went more to the emotions than the intellect.

The playing, in every case, was brilliant, but the material became monotonous and lacking in meaning. If you’re a flutist or clarinetist, or a pianist who’s interested in a prepared instrument, it’s fascinating to hear new sounds painted by composers who are trying hard to invent something different. But what does that sound mean? What does it do?

Bach was a brilliant technician. He could take a four-part fugue and bend it in different directions so that, on paper, it became an intricate mathematical puzzle. But Bach had heart. Even without knowing his crab canons were crawling in every direction, you feel emotion; you’re punched in the gut by what he has to say. The only punch I got out of this concert was a big yawn.

I also felt I was missing an important part of the presentation. Each composition was based on a piece of art, but we didn’t get to see any of it. Yes, there were infinitesimal photos of the works included in the program, but they weren’t interactive, and they didn’t light up (as described, after the fact, by members of the ensemble) or flash or give any sense that they belonged to the music. It was like being left out of half the production.

John Williams, Aaron Copland and Philip Glass have music for films, but their music stands alone without the movie that inspired it. The four works we heard in the program, titled incongruously, “Hand Eye,” needed visual aids. Or something. Something more than great playing and what amounted to tricks of the trade to get us involved in the goings on.

RIAF seems to fall short these days when it comes to its musical presentations. They lack the sparkle and the passion of the dance and theater productions it presents. Eighth Blackbird is a young, vivacious, talented group of musicians but again, the music they offered was, I’m sure, much more interesting to play and analyze than to hear.


Five grand pianos equal crowd pleaser

October 11th, 2016Posted by admin


The Artist Series Concerts Piano Grand! delights audience both musically and emotionally.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: October 9, 2016
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

It’s been done before. Carnegie Hall and Eugene List used to present Monster Concerts featuring a multitude of pianos with lots of grand hands playing great music, from Gottschalk to Grieg. But it’s rarely been done with such finesse and fun as the Piano Grand! concert that opened the Artist Series Concerts on Sunday afternoon to a packed crowd at the Sarasota Opera House.

Five Steinway concert grands were imported from New York City — one of them a model signed by Tony Bennett — and five super Sarasota pianists, Joseph Holt, Don Bryn, Andrew Lapp, Rich Ridenour and Jonathan Spivey, put their hands together for a scintillating concert, with personalized comments by Holt, for performances that brought down the house.

This is the kind of concert that could result in a lot of banging and clanging, but the music never got away from the controlled precision of these five fine musicians. In fact, with all the fun that was thrown at the audience, it was an amazingly understated, balanced performance that made us laugh but also touched us, musically and emotionally.

From a rousing rendition of the National Anthem arranged for a piano quintet to a charming arrangement of Mozart’s “Ah, vous dirai-je maman” (aka “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”), the programming and playing were top notch. Grieg’s famous “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from “Peer Gynt,” Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” from “The Nutcracker,” and the Gypsy Dance from Bizet’s “Carmen,” all began with nice, slow tempi that were later expanded into whirlwinds of sounds.

We had a chance to hear the pianists in duets and solos, as Bryn joined Holt for a sensitively played Slavonic Dance in E minor by Dvorak and Holt with Lapp in a stunning performance of Rachmaninov’s “Romance.” There was a wonderfully in sync rendition of the Brazileira from Milhaud’s “Scaramouche” and a jazzy, off-kilter tango (“Libertango”) played by Ridenour, joined by his wife, Stacey Ridenour.

“The Blue Danube” Waltz tinkled along with the grace of the great river and Joplin’s “Entertainer” was stylish and hilarious as the pianists played a game of musical pianos, changing seats mid-phrases.

There were the guaranteed crowd pleasers, too: “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” and a corn ball overture by von Suppe. But even those were played with both panache and restraint so you never had the feeling this was pure bombast.

If this is a sign of what’s to come for the Artist Series Concerts, we’ve got a lot to look forward to this season.


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.