MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks II Concert

December 9th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: December 7, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

It was a concert of ups and downs that was presented this past weekend by the Sarasota Orchestra led by guest conductor Evans Haile. The real upside of the performances was the orchestra, itself, which proved it can play well under almost any circumstance. The down side was Haile who stumbled almost as often as he stood up to the challenges of the all-American program.

Brash, bright, in your face, sensitive, embracing, vulgar, honest, upright and decadent, American music is, by nature, like America, itself. As a people we are full of contradictions, and that’s what composers Ron Nelson and Joan Tower emphasized in their works, which opened the program.

Nelson’s popular “Savannah River Holiday Overture” is sprightly, optimistic and dazzling, filled with lots of brass and percussion, and would work well as the soundtrack for a Superman movie or a 1960s big city television detective program. Tower’s poly-rhythmic, multi-metered “Sequoia” is a big tone poem that paints the concentric circles of the rings on the trunk of the giant redwoods with a tonal palette that expands to include 20th century musical languages.

The orchestra played both really well, even though Haile, a left-handed conductor who wields not a baton but a pencil, beat time more than he painted colors with the forces he had at hand. There was little attention paid to dynamics or subtleties beyond those the composers had printed into the scores. Still, Haile did a good job holding everything together, and the Sarasota Orchestra was able to do some really outstanding work without much help from the podium.

Aaron Copland’s affecting “Lincoln Portrait” fared better with Haile holding the ensemble in check while the glamorous and beautifully spoken actress, Tamara Tunie, read the patriotic and poignant words of the 16th president of the United States. Even with the extraordinary and imposing memory of the voices of Marian Anderson, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, James Earl Jones and Carl Sandburg echoing in my ears, Tunie gave a reading of these texts that was moving, passionate and dignified, lending just the right weight and emphasis to, “That is what he said. That is what Abraham Lincoln said.” Those words, underscored by Copland’s music and the orchestra’s playing, were inspiring, stirring and memorable.

The Copland was cleverly juxtaposed with Samuel Barber’s poignant and tender “Adagio for Strings.” Written originally as a movement in a string quartet, this piece — often played at funerals — has been arranged (mostly by the composer) for various combinations, from string orchestra to chorus. For this performance with the lustrous strings of the Sarasota Orchestra, Haile laid down his pencil and conducted beautifully, using both hands to elicit sweeping phrases and warm sounds from the ensemble.

Unfortunately, for the finale of the concert, Gershwin’s beloved “Rhapsody in Blue,” the conductor chose to be soloist as well as conductor, and failed in both roles. Leaving aside the multiple wrong notes he played, it was one of the weirdest performances of this well-known work I’ve ever heard. The Steinway was almost inaudible at times, sounding muffled and underpowered. The pianist’s phrasing was inconsistent and fitful, especially toward the finale when he set one tempo for the orchestra and another for himself. Who would do that? And why?

One other thing must be mentioned. I’m all for conductors speaking to their audiences, but they need to temper their talks with a sense of who and what that audience is. Haile, who addressed us as if we were at a young people’s concert, was longwinded, condescending and embarrassing. Please. Unless you’re a Leonard Bernstein, let the music speak for itself.

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MUSIC REVIEW: ‘Songs of Wars I Have Seen’

November 25th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 23, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Music is, without question, an aural experience. But some music is aurally sonic, like a boom that explodes in your head and leaves an indelible impression on your brain. Heiner Goebbels, a composer who works with sounds as if they’re living creatures, created a work called, “Songs of Wars I Have Seen.” Based on one of Gertrude Stein’s books, Goebbels has taken the rhythm and cadence of Stein’s written words and turned them into a visual, visceral experience that seems to grow on you even after the last sounds have ceased ringing from the stage.

“Songs of Wars I Have Seen” is a thought-provoking piece filled with unearthly, enigmatic sounds that, somehow, tie together the vignettes of wartime Stein wrote about. In the 1970s, the work might have been called an “Encounter,” but today, especially the way Goebbels has put it together, it’s a piece of theater with music.

Set on the smallish platform of Holley Hall, the orchestra, featuring members of the Sarasota Orchestra, is placed by gender, with the men — in black attire — sitting on risers upstage, facing the audience, and the women, dressed as if at home — in differently colored tops over casual pants — are assembled as a septet, downstage, surrounded by mismatched end tables with equally off-balance lamps, as if accumulated from various homes and put together for warmth.

It’s the women, the ones at home while their men are at war, who tell their stories and, like the prodigious author she was, Stein leaves room within her own memories for some of ours to tiptoe in and make interpretations that open windows into our own souls.

Goebbels music is at once enlightening and dramatic but, for the most part, it’s supportive and one has to wonder what this particular piece would be without the text. Baroque music played by the women with eerie, supernatural, ghostlike and sometimes creepy sounds (played on a synthesizer by Joseph Holt), is the glue that connects the stories and the original music by Goebbels.

The seven women from the Sarasota Orchestra — violinists Jennifer Best Takeda and Chung-Yon Hong, violist Elizabeth Beilman, cellist Cheeko Matsusaka, bassist RoseAnne McCabe, flutist Betsy Hudson Traba and harpist Cheryl Losey — put aside their musical instruments to read the Stein stories and they did it in a way that allowed the words to become part of the music. Although Takeda did have a sung part that was perfectly on pitch and considerably more spine-chilling and paranormal than a real singer would have pulled off, the other readings weren’t sung; they weren’t even written in rhythms or like Sprechstimme (speaking on pitch). Rather, every one of these instrumentalists’ readings followed the cadence and rhythm written into the text by Stein, making their stories natural, real and, at times, quite disturbing. Some of them were also amusing and touching. Most of all, they left room for our imaginations to see ourselves in the stories and, with Goebbels’ music underscoring the text, they were just that much more personal.

The percussion section of the orchestra had a whirlwind-of-a-time playing instruments we’d never seen before, along with familiar ones in unsettling ways. The “Sound Design,” (by Ian Dearden), something one doesn’t often connect with a so-called Classical concert, brought out lines and musical motifs so we were aware of their context more than we’d have been without the amplification.

The lighting, by Michael Pasquini and the composer, who designed the lighting, was both unsettling and beautiful. Changing from the warm glow of gold one sees through the windows of a cozy cottage to bright, stark white, the lights combined with the music and text to create an ambiance closer to a theatrical event than a concert setting.

Anu Tali, the Sarasota Orchestra’s music director, held all of this together in a way we’ve rarely seen in orchestral performances. Often, her role was simply beating time, a necessity when so many things were happening at once. At other times, she drew emotions from the individual instruments and sections of the orchestra. And, as in the final section, when trumpeter Michael Dobrinski performed a poignant, affecting solo, her black-clad body with long blonde hair streaming down her back, was so stock still, she became part of the music, like the stark ghost light that hovered over the stage, reminding us that theaters, like people, can sometimes be heartless and empty.

That image, along with the unsettling but consoling sounds of all the musicians playing tuned Tibetan bowls, which first sounded disconcertedly like dangerous mythological Sirens but then transformed into church bells ringing out peace, brought a reassuring and comforting conclusion to this most unusual work.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Youth Opera’s ‘The Hobbit’

November 25th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 20, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Try Googling “American Youth Opera Companies,” and you’ll come up with organizations that have Apprentice Programs for young singers, operas written for young voices, operas written for adults to sing and to be heard by young audiences, but less than a handful of companies that actually have, as a branch of their organization, an “Opera Company” that trains school-age kids to sing operas written for both adults and children. Chief among them: Sarasota Opera.

In existence for 30 years, the Sarasota Youth Opera has been training thousands of children, from the age of 8 through seniors in high school, to pronounce foreign languages, match tones, listen to music, understand what Opera is, act, dance, move and, as they grow, learn about real singing.

The Youth Opera is used as the children’s chorus during the regular season of the Sarasota Opera, giving children and teens the opportunity to participate in grand opera. Best of all, these kids have a chance, every year, to perform for their families, friends, peers and total strangers in works that have been written, specifically, for young voices that can be enjoyed by everyone.

Lots of very famous composers have written staged works for children to perform and attend, from Bruce Adolphe, Elie Siegmeister, Gian Carlo Menotti and Douglas Moore, to Libby Larson, Victor Herbert, John Rutter and Aaron Copland. Even Mozart put his youthful hand to youthful operas. (I can’t include Humperdinck in this list because, even though his “Hansel and Gretel” is an adult and youthful favorite, it’s principal parts were written for big, mature voices to sing over a Wagnerian orchestra, something young children and even teens should never attempt.)

But Sarasota Opera has its very own Youth Opera. It’s a place where youngsters showing musical talent with a proclivity toward singing, can audition and get careful, early training in all the things opera calls for: acting, dancing, moving, singing, musicianship, poise and listening.

Jesse Martins, the conductor and music director of the Sarasota Youth Opera, has worked with Artistic Director Victor deRenzi since 2011. You’ll remember him from last year, when he made his conducting debut in Sarasota with Britten’s “The Little Sweep.” But he’s also trained the children’s choruses for such masterpieces as “Carmen,” “Otello,” and “Turandot.”

The human voice is a fragile thing and, if it’s not trained and used properly, it can easily be destroyed. Young voices are particularly delicate and it can be dangerous to train them too early. Whatever Jesse Martins is doing with his Youth Opera kids, though, seems to be right because the singing in this year’s production of “The Hobbit,” was exemplary. Using gentle amplification for some of the young voices helped because it kept the kids from over-singing, while allowing them to project words and sounds into the sold-out Opera House.

Based on the famous Tolkien stories, with music and libretto by Dean Burry, “The Hobbit” is sung in English (with English surtitles) and, in some cases, easier to understand than the books or movies. The cast we saw at last Saturday evening’s performance featured almost 100 children including Dominique Cecchetti, as Bilbo Baggins, a part that was double-cast, with Sarah Levison taking the role the following day. There was a sprinkling of adults from the main company’s Apprentice and Studio Artist program taking on the roles of the larger or older creatures. But it was the kids who won the day.

We were particularly impressed by the half-dozen Elf Maidens (Katherine Herbert, Adriana Fernandez, Sophia Masterson, Lauren Cash, Sadie Fox and Aubree Zern), who drifted in and out of the action like the Spirits in Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” all in excellent voice and almost perfect harmony.

Winning the day with all those kids was stage director Martha Collins, who used her ample imagination and theatrical instincts to pull-off a dramatically gratifying performance. Having almost 100 children on stage must be a little like herding puppies but Collins made them into a professional theatrical troupe, while Martins (with first-rate help from members of the Sarasota Orchestra in the pit) turned them into a well-balanced musical ensemble.

Special mention must be made of the ingenuity of scenic designer Jeffrey Dean; costume designer, B.G. FitzGerald; lighting designer Ken Yunker; and hair and make-up designer, Dave Bova. Together, they made magic by turning children into dwarves, elves and goblins; a super-dragon named Smaug (played by Studio Artist William Roberts with mystical creatures beneath his wings) into a lovable monster; and turned Old Bilbo (Justin John Moniz, an Apprentice) into an unforgettable creation that’s bound to turn youthful audiences into future opera lovers.

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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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