June LeBell, long-time, award-winning broadcaster with WQXR in New York City, to air new radio program on WSMR

February 4th, 2014Posted by admin

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Exciting news for Sarasota, Tampa and much of the Florida West Coast, as well as fans of great music and classic conversations, June LeBell will be hosting a new one-hour program of musical conversations starting in October. She’ll host, produce and book the guests on her show. And the performers and musicians she features will be from all over the world with a good mix of local and world-renowned talent. Her first guest will be Marilyn Horne, the world famous Met Opera mezzo. The program will air Sundays from 4PM – 5PM, starting in October, with a repeat the following week, and will  be streamed over WSMR.org,  for those not in WSMR’s large listening area of the west coast of Florida.

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MUSIC REVIEW: La Musica final program

April 19th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: April 18, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

La Musica ended its season last Wednesday with a wonderfully sculpted program it played with precision and beauty. Unfortunately, the house was only about half full, so many of Sarasota’s chamber music enthusiasts missed one of the best concerts of the year.

Opening with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester, violinists Massimo Quarta and Laura Zarina, violist Bruno Giuranna and cellist Julie Albers, had all the color and bubbles this work demands. Known over the past couple of decades as the “M*A*S*H” Quintet because it was used to underscore the final episode of the popular TV program, Mozart – who loved the clarinet — pulled out his attaché case of amazing sounds and delivered a work that overflows with melodies and harmonies no one else could or would have devised. There’s just no one like Mozart when it comes to brilliant musical twists and turns and, in his A Major Quintet, the composer gave us everything to make him live up to his “Zauber” (magic) reputation.

The musicians had the kind of blend that comes from understanding and preparation with Franch-Ballester absolutely singing the second movement in a way reminiscent of a great Countess singing “Porgi Amor” in “Le Nozze di Figaro.” It was a memorable performance.

Bartok’s brilliant, jazzy, quirky “Contrasts” followed, with pianist Derek Han joining Franch-Ballester and Zarina. “Contrasts,” which Benny Goodman commissioned for a whopping $300, has everything a musician could want to play and an audience could want to hear, from Hungarian and Romanian folk tunes to spicy jazz. The trio negotiated the contrary motion scales and the lyrical, tipsy dances in bi and poly-modalities with tremendous strength, while Franch-Ballester switched from one clarinet to another and Zarina changed violins (one tuned normally and the other, not). The trio brough exquisite colors to this already colorful work.
Finally, New York Philharmonic principal violist Cynthia Phelps joined Quarta, Albers and Han in Dvorak’s E-flat major Piano Quartet, a work that brings us even more modal sounds and folk themes than Bartok’s “Contrasts.” From the opening unison among the three strings to the rhapsodic Gypsy rhythms, this is an inspired work that’s gutsy, romantic and familiar, because some of the themes sound much like Dvorak’s symphonies. In fact, the main theme in the third movement, which makes use of the harmonic minor scale, is almost a dead-ringer for a theme in the second movement of the composer’s Symphony No. 8, written about 10 years earlier. If you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from yourself, especially when it’s good.

Han, Quarta and Albers were in fine form for their performance, with great attention to the tricky pitches and exuberant rhythms. What a great way to conclude a season.

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Tidbites

April 17th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: April 16, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ Café Americano Offers La Prima Colazione (aka breakfast)
Café Americano, located at 1409 Main St., has long been a great place for lunch and dinner — inside for quiet and good food and outside for good food and people watching. Recently, owner Ambrish Piare added some new items to his extremely successful breakfasts.

According to Piare, “Too much of a good thing is the right approach to take when creating the ideal breakfast menu.”

So, in addition to all the great frittatas he’s been serving, he’s added a “Meat Lovers” frittata with sausage, prosciutto, mushrooms, roasted red peppers and provolone cheese.

Not satisfied with simple pancakes, Americano has four varieties of them, three kinds of Belgian waffles, French toast and at least five different omelets a day. Sound like too much for your diet? Americano is now offering a Paleo-power breakfast with grilled sirloin steak, tomato, avocado and two egg whites.

There’s even a way to dream up your own custom breakfast with a choice of 11 different sides and lots and lots of lattes.

Inside or out, diet or too much, prima colazione, colazione or pranzo, Americano has it all in a fun, cosmopolitan atmosphere within walking distance of just about everything downtown Sarasota has to offer.

+ Pre-theater Dining
Mattison’s on the Bay is the restaurant in the Van Wezel. Offering spectacular views, sunsets to write home about and a buffet you can always count on to get you through the performance, this is the most logical, most convenient and best deal you can find for a pre-concert dinner. (You can even get a parking space up close and within steps of the front doors.)

We enjoy a drink before dinner and the wait staff is always eager to accommodate our orders. For an 8 p.m. curtain, we usually make a 6 p.m. dinner reservation so we may have a drink and sample the great variety of cheeses, veggies and salads before we start our dinner.

The buffet’s main table always includes one of the most tender cuts of beef we’ve had. We like ours rare, but the ends are seared medium-well for all tastes. There’s also always a chicken, fish and pasta dish with lots of vegetables and sides.

Going downtown to FST or the Gompertz for an evening of theater? Make a reservation for dinner in The Green Room. The simple pub setting offers great drinks and a menu of well-prepared salads, sandwiches and heartier dishes in a calm, unrushed atmosphere that reminds me a little of a quiet version of Sardi’s in New York. Photos and posters set the scene for the scenes you’ll see inside the theaters. Wood-paneled windows look out onto a porch that’s straight out of the Berkshires. It’s a simple, straightforward, fun way to go to theater downtown without the hassle of parking twice and rushing to your seat.

+ The Easter Bunny is confused by too many choices
Easter brunch has become so popular, it has expanded to an Easter weekend brunch at several restaurants. Want to celebrate Sunday at home? Great. Go to either Libby’s or Louies Modern for an a la carte brunch on Easter Saturday. Or, take advantage of dining out on the holiday with Libby’s special holiday buffet. You could never have a groaning board like its at home. Prime rib, omelets, yogurts, boatloads of fruit, bacon, sausage, gravy, pancakes, waffles, fried chicken, hash browns, salads, pastas, deviled eggs, quiche … I’m getting too full to type and I haven’t even mentioned the desserts.

Meanwhile, The Francis is going to be open to the public for a special Easter Brunch with seatings available by reservation. As you know, The Francis is adjacent to Louies Modern but is usually open only for special events: parties, receptions, weddings, meetings and other affairs for large groups. This is a great chance to see and sample The Francis and make Easter your special occasion. It’s going to present a variety of stations featuring salads (from artichokes and couscous to pasta and sweet potatoes), seafood (oysters, shrimp, ceviche, crab and salmon), carved meats (rib roast, baked ham, leg of lamb), pancakes and waffles (fruit pancakes and pecan wild rice waffles), eggs (benedicts, omelets, scrambled) and desserts (OMG!).

The Table Creekside combines one of the best brunch opportunities in town with a view you won’t want to leave. Sit inside and be surrounded by glass walls looking over the water. Outside, you’re on a dock hanging over the creek with envious pelicans and duck families celebrating their own harvest from the water.

From delicate trios of seafood to caviar amuse bouche, The Table always manages to come up with something different, delicate and delicious. I’m particularly fond of the swoop of the bar as you walk in.

Love the colors and the lightness of it all.

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MUSIC REVIEW: La Musica

April 11th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: April 11, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

La Musica, one of Sarasota’s international chamber music festivals, returned for performances at the Opera House this past week with programs that looked much better on paper than they turned out to be in reality.

One of the several problems with this festival in recent years has been its stagnant programming. In an attempt to update their concerts, this year’s offerings included slightly more modern composers like Walton, Bridge, Popper and Bartok. But this modest attempt at revitalizing the repertoire made barely a dent in the overall atmosphere of La Musica, with one exception: a world premiere of a commissioned piece by Vijay Iyer called “Bruits.” Well known for his work in jazz and electronic music, Iyer is both a McArthur Genius Fellowship winner, and recipient of the Greenfield Prize from the Hermitage Artist Retreat and Philadelphia’s Greenfield Foundation.

According to the dictionary, “A bruit is an audible vascular sound associated with turbulent blood flow.” There was much more than blood flowing in Iyer’s work. Played this past Thursday evening by the eminent Imani Winds with pianist Cory Smythe, it seemed Francis Poulenc had run headlong into John Adams.

Filled with interesting sounds that, at times, turned the winds into a percussion section, Iyer had the musicians beating, thrashing, fluttering, thumping, palpating, pulsating, drumming, pounding and thudding their instruments while the piano hammered scales and undulated intervals.

But “Bruits” isn’t just about noises and sounds. It’s also about the controversial “Stand your ground” and “Shoot first” laws in Florida and, to make his point, Iyer had the members of the Imani chant the text of the laws as part of the music. It wasn’t exactly Sprechstimme because the musicians didn’t speak on any discernable pitches. And, because their voices weren’t amplified, it was often difficult to understand what they were saying. But they got their point across, making this a sometimes powerful piece.

That’s not to say “Bruits” is particularly new in its concept. Somewhat reminiscent of the experimental music that was being composed in the 1970s, “Bruits” is more interesting in theory than emotional impact. One of the problems with this type of writing is that you need to read the program notes before you can fully understand what the composer is trying to say and that bothers me. I want music to speak to me, move me and be accessible to my gut without an explanation. Still, it was refreshing to hear something different at La Musica.

Thursday’s program opened with a clean, nicely shaped performance of Boccherini’s well-known E Major Quintet with violinists Federico Agostini and Laura Zarina, violist Rebecca Albers and cellists Julie Albers and Dmitri Atapine. This is pure parlor music and its famous Minuet, which has been heard in everything from TV commercials and movies to radio “bumpers,” separating the news from the weather forecast, is charming but blithely predictable.

The evening concluded with Schubert’s beloved “Trout” Quintet in a perfunctory reading by pianist Derek Han, violinist Massimo Quarta, violist Bruno Giuranna, cellist Antonio Meneses, and bassist Scott Faulkner that was fraught with a seeming lack of consensus among the players about pitch and overall concept. This was not a “Trout” we’d want to catch.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks VII

April 7th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: April 6, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

What is there anyone could possibly say about the famous Fifth Symphony of Beethoven that’s not been said before? Why bother introducing this warhorse of a work when even those who’ve never darkened the doorway of a concert hall recognize the legendary opening four notes? That’s what went through my mind as guest conductor Philip Mann walked out on the stage of the Van Wezel, with a microphone in his hand, to start the second half of the Sarasota Orchestra’s final Masterworks concert of the season this past weekend.

But, I was pleasantly surprised, not only by what he said, but the way he said it. Referring to the history-changing nature of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Mann said, “Who could have known that one brick would build a whole cathedral.”

Mann’s program opened and closed with Beethoven, making it popular with the sold-out audiences before the orchestra played one note. His readings of the Egmont Overture and the Fifth Symphony were done without the use of a score and, although many parts of both works sounded oddly phrased and articulated (possibly because the conductor was using a different edition from the one we usually hear), he elicited beautiful, rich sounds from the orchestra without over-conducting. Although the orchestra gave Mann everything he wanted, the thing that bothered me about some of his musical ideas was his fairly consistent lack of architectural structure and breadth of phrasing. Perhaps his enthusiasm, which was contagious and  which the audience as well as the players happily caught, led him to barrel through phrases without singing them and, often, without those all-important silences that add maturity to a conductor’s insights.

For me, the highlight of the evening was the Harp Concerto by the 20th century Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. Scored for a chamber orchestra (compared with the Beethoven pieces) with so many percussion instruments it was hard to count them, this is a fascinatingly colorful work filled with sound sensations that kept our ears and eyes riveted to the stage.

Cheryl Losey, principal harpist of the Sarasota Orchestra, lived up to the reputation of physical beauty often associated with harpists, but she was no angel in this piece. Swiping, stabbing, slapping and strumming her Salzedo Concert Grand harp, she turned this customarily beatific instrument into a percussive vehicle that spoke in myriad languages and colors. This was an incredibly virtuosic performance given by a virtuoso of the harp, with great musical support from her aptly admiring colleagues.

Ginastera was obviously in the company of many of the 20th century’s great composers, including Copland, Bernstein, Barber and Britten. In fact, there were a couple of chords that sounded so much like Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols,” I instinctively took a breath to sing my entrance.

It’s a wonderfully expansive work — syncopated, melodic, percussive and visceral — and Losey lost herself in its brilliance, eliciting a dazzling performance with hands harvesting amazing sounds from the strings and feet deftly flooring the pedals. (She may need a vat of hand cream to sooth her shredded fingers after that workout.)

Virtuosity isn’t everything, and Losey, Mann and the orchestra paid close attention to the radiance Ginastera brought to this harp concerto. It’s a work that deserves to be heard more often if, and when, a soloist of Losey’s caliber can be found.

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Tidbites

April 3rd, 2014Posted by admin

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

+ A new Peruvian restaurant
What is it about Sarasota and Peruvian restaurants? New York, San Francisco and several other cities have a China Town and Little Italy. Many cities — including Sarasota — boast of a restaurant row. But Sarasota seems to have more Peruvian restaurants than any place except Lima. And they’re good ones.

Inkanto, located at 4141 S. Tamiami Trail, seems to be one of the more recent to pop onto the scene and, although its menu is always changing, depending on the market, it seems to set itself apart from the other excellent Peruvian restaurant choices we have by bringing us truly authentic delicacies we can’t find easily — especially when it comes to fish. Recently it had some special dishes featuring corvina, a firm-fleshed, flaky, mild fish that is found in the Pacific, along Central and South America. On one evening it was serving it pickled, over a bed of quinoa stew: fried with a creamy saffron sauce, or flambéed and diced with red vinegar and soy sauce. See what I mean about different?

The restaurant is known for its ceviche and, from the choices on the menu, we can understand why. From the samplers that offer you a multiple choice of tastings to the elegant and cool temptations that are “cooked” in aromatic lime juice, Inkanto’s ceviche creations are suited to every palette, ranging nicely in spiciness and piquancy.

The restaurant is appealing, with warm, inviting orange-red walls and lots of dark wood that make you feel as if you’re in a charming clubby atmosphere somewhere in South America. That and the food make it a great place to escape for a fun and relaxing evening of great food, good wines and happy company.

Inkanto is only for dinner, and becoming more and more popular as the word spreads; it’s a good idea to have a reservation.

+ Cooking for a cause
Many restaurants set aside time to close their doors to the public and open them specifically for groups with a mission. For example, CasAntica, the wonderful Italian restaurant located at 1213 N. Palm Ave., is hosting a dinner for an organization called Selah Freedom, a group that helps young women pull their lives back together after they’ve been abused by predators dealing in human trafficking.

At 6:30 p.m. April 10 there will be a special fundraising dinner at CasAntica that owner Peter Migliacco is putting together to help this worthy organization. The dinner will feature a guest speaker and raffle. And the food — oh the food. After a mouth-watering phone conversation with Peter, who had me drooling over his descriptions, I’m happy to report that, along with a selection of hot and cold appetizers and a choice of chicken Florentino or Sole CasAntica, the pasta course will feature a choice of any of the amazing al dente pastas served at the restaurant with either a luxurious tomato sauce or a creamy white sauce.

Tickets are $125. For more information, call 545-3874.

Two days later, at 6:30 p.m. April 12, Grapes for Humanity Global and Chef Christian Hershman of State Street Eating House will hold a fine wine dinner at the charming State of the Arts Gallery, located at 1525 State St. This is a fascinating group. Arlene Willis, whose brother was killed in the Vietnam War, conceived Grapes for Humanity. The idea is to raise funds for those injured by landmines, through wine tastings, dinners, auctions and other wine-related functions.

Hershman’s State Street Eating House offers clever combinations of comfort food and Epicurean creations such as braised pork shoulder with veggies, and chicken broth with dumplings and kale. His inventive menu is perfect for wine pairings you might not dream up on your own. The idea of this special evening is to “Turn a passion for wine into the power to soothe a troubled world.”

Tickets are $200. For more information, visit gfhglobal.org.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Mozart Madness I

April 1st, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 30, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Every once in a while, there’s a concert that’s so satisfying, we leave smiling. That happened a couple of weeks ago when chamber ensembles from the Sarasota Orchestra presented a concert in Holley Hall devoted to Mozart. They called it “Mozart Madness” because two of the three works were composed by Mozart and the third was in written in his memory by the 20th century Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos.

What made the concert so satisfying was the playing. The Sarasota String Quartet opened the program with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 16 in E flat. Eventually dedicated by Mozart to Haydn, this is one of a set of six quartets written in Vienna. It takes the kinds of unexpected twists and turns heard more often in works by Haydn than Mozart, but it also takes us to places only Mozart could dream up. The second movement, for example, has some really unusual dissonances harmonizing a simple melody. Listening to it, I could only think, “Only Mozart would have done that.”

It’s a unique piece, and a somewhat atypical Sarasota String Quartet, in that all the usual members weren’t in attendance, played it. Violinists Daniel Jordan and Christopher Takeda and violist Elizabeth Beilman — all members of the ensemble — were playing. But Isabelle Besancon was sitting in for cellist Abraham Feder. The exciting part is that these musicians are so accustomed to working together in the Sarasota Orchestra, there was little problem with them playing chamber music collectively on this occasion.

Mozart’s Piano Quintet, also in E flat, was the second offering and, in the hands of pianist Jonathan Spivey, oboist Adam De Sorgo, clarinetist Bharat Chandra, bassoonist Fernando Traba and hornist Joe Assi, it was pure charm. Each instrument blended as if the four wind players had grown up on the same block. And, with Spivey’s underpinning, the work took on an almost operatic glow. In fact, Mozart must have been looking ahead to “Don Giovanni” because a lot of the instrumental voicing had overtones of vocal music he’d write a few years later.

We often talk about the shaping of phrases and how important musical sculpting is to a performance. Spivey wove Mozart’s ingenious syncopations and one-of-a-kind harmonies into a beautifully rounded foundation for his Sarasota Orchestra colleagues, never overpowering them but always supporting and fortifying them as they sang their way through this instrumentally operatic ensemble. (We will miss Assi after this season, by the way, because he’s leaving Sarasota to play French horn in the Dallas Symphony.)

Villa-Lobos’ Sinfonietta No. 1, subtitled, “In Memory of Mozart,” is one strange, quirky piece of music. Dirk Meyer led the chamber ensemble, made of musicians from the Sarasota Orchestra, in a somewhat serious reading of this anomalous work. They started with a chorale-like dirge that brightened into rather jaunty music that had as much to do with Mozart as my great-grandfather. Yes, there was an undercurrent of sections from the Overture to the “Magic Flute,” but that was about the closest thing resembling Mozart’s memory I could find.

The Sinfonietta’s orchestration is also odd. Villa-Lobos takes the ensemble apart, giving an element to all the brass, for example, and then adding strings and, finally, winds. It’s an eccentric way of coloring an orchestra and, beyond being interested in hearing something I’d not heard before, the 19 minutes it took to be played weren’t entirely worth the trouble.

Still, its very incongruities made for unconventional ideas and, with apologies to Mozart, it was fun. Best of all, the musicians put forth some fine playing, and that’s what made this Mozart Madness emotionally and aurally satisfying.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Music Festival 50th Anniversary Concert

March 25th, 2014Posted by admin

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

How can the Sarasota Music Festival be 50 years old? In 1964, my parents were snowbirds, contemplating a move to Sarasota and, being avid chamber music listeners, they were thrilled that the city they were planning to live in, after being life-long upper west siders in Manhattan, N.Y., was going to offer an important chamber festival.

Under Paul Wolfe’s leadership and, more recently, Robert Levin’s tutelage, the Sarasota Music Festival has become one of the leading teaching festivals in the world. For three weeks every spring, the best of the best instrumentalists stream to Sarasota to learn from a faculty that represents some of the finest chamber musicians and soloists in the world and to play chamber and orchestral concerts with them, side-by-side.

This may make for excellent listening as far as audiences are concerned. But, the festival has also produced a bevy of alumni who have taken their work in Sarasota to major posts in the Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta symphonies and the Berlin Philharmonic. They’ve come from all over the world and, in turn, spread the word about Sarasota’s culture to the rest of the world. And some of them have been chosen to play principal roles in the Sarasota Orchestra.

In honor of the festival’s 50th anniversary, Levin brought six recent alumni to Sarasota for a special concert a couple of weeks ago in Holley Hall. Russian-born pianist Asiya Korepanova, an SMF alumna from 2011, and gold-medal recipient of the 2012 Wideman International Competition, opened the festivities with a well-sculpted performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D flat. She later reappeared in a segment from Bartok’s “Contrasts,” with violinist Elena Urioste (who is an alum from 2005 and 2006, and has been featured on the cover of Symphony magazine) and the mesmerizing clarinetist Moran Katz (who was with the festival in 2004 and 2005, and is a recent winner of the prestigious Ima Hogg Competition).

Katz also offered a scintillating performance of Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” and Ravel’s beautiful vocalise, “Piece en forme de Habanera,” with great finesse and a wonderful range of colors. And Urioste was also heard in Hubay’s “Fantaisie Brilliant,” a wild-ride-of-an-arrangement of Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Brahms was represented by the gypsy movement (“Rondo alla Zingarese”), from his G minor Piano Quartet, Opus 25, with Urioste, Korepanova, violist Elizabeth Beilman (who was with the festival in 2007, was the 2013 winner of the President’s Prize of the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition and is the new principal violist of the Sarasota Orchestra) and cellist Mark Yee (a 2012 alumnus and winner of the Cleveland Institute’s Concerto Competition).

Pianist Ya-Fei Chuang, who was with the SMF in 1993 and has since become a major soloist and is a chamber musician and wife of Levin, presented a rousing and clean performance of Ravel’s “La Valse,” in her own arrangement. And, for a grand finale, Levin joined Chuang for exceptionally thoughtful and exciting readings of three dances for piano four-hands: Brahms’ Hungarian Dances 1 and 2, and Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance in E minor, Opus 72, No. 2.

Before the concert, Levin pointed out that every major orchestra in the U.S. is “populated with alumni” from the SMF. It was exciting to see the names of some of these musicians on a beautifully presented PowerPoint presentation (sarasotaorchestra.org/festival/students/festival-alumni) that elicited gasps of surprise from many in the audience. But there’s no need to be shocked. After 50 years, it’s no secret that the Sarasota Music Festival is up there with Aspen, Tanglewood, the Music Academy of the West and Spoleto Festival USA. See you at the Opera House for this season’s performances, which start the first week of June.

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Tidbites

March 20th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 19, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

+ Verdi’s ‘Jérusalem’ meets MoZaic
The Sarasota Opera has been offering prelude dinners: three-course meals at choice restaurants within walking distance of the Opera House, with friends who are attending that evening’s performance and want to get together for a good dinner before the curtain. One of this season’s choices was MoZaic, just around the corner from the opera, and a destination, in itself.

We joined about 25 other opera fans recently before the opening night of Verdi’s “Jerusalem,” and Dylan Elhajoui, MoZaic’s master chef who specializes in continental cuisine with a Moroccan twist, went all-out with a made-to-order menu just for us. The choices for our first course included sautéed escargots and mushrooms in boursin gougère or pumpkin and mascarpone ravioli in a brown butter-sage sauce with a Bailey’s Irish cream “owl” of golden hubbard squash potage. The entrees included salmon with a goat cheese soufflé, glazed Cornish hen or jasmine tea duck breast. And, how do you choose just one from a dessert menu that gives you a choice of bittersweet chocolate espresso pot de crème or lavender-scented buttermilk panna cotta with Moscatto d’asti-apricot soup and vanilla bean ice cream?

Elhajoui set us up in the room to the side of the front door, and it couldn’t have been a more auspicious way to set the scene for the rarely performed opera we were going to hear a couple of hours later. Bravos were being voiced at MoZaic, as well as the Opera House.

+ The Honey Tree Café offers dining all day
Fun, relaxed restaurants that open for breakfast and lunch are a dime a dozen in Sarasota. But eateries that serve food starting in the early morning and continue through dinner are not that easy to find. The Honey Tree Café, located at 8315 Lockwood Ridge Road, reminds me of a combination of a New Jersey diner and a Manhattan coffee shop. It offers an enormous array of food, from eggs and waffles, to hot and cold sandwiches, salads and entrees such as steak, meatloaf and stir-fries.

We’ve gone there primarily for lunch and, seeing that its specialty sandwiches and wraps came in the form of pitas and gyros, we assumed the owners were Greek. Not so.

The Quni family came to Sarasota from Kosovo, by way of Michigan. They’ve been around for almost 50 years and, as File Quni (pronounced as if it were short for Phyllis, which it’s not), says, “We thought it was temporary, but we stayed.”

Good thing, too, because File, her husband, Zef, and their four children — three boys and one girl — turn out some pretty fancy food in a setting that’s as informal and relaxed as you can get. Even their menu speaks for them: “Welcome to the Honey Tree Café,” it says. “We take pride in our food and preparing it the way you like. We are family owned and operated. So, sit back, relax and let us do the cooking and serve you as family. Enjoy!”

We like our eggs, whether they are omelets, scrambled or fried, on the soft side. Many restaurants refuse to serve them softer than a hard ball. But, at the Honey Tree, they do our bidding without an argument or even that look that says, “Are you crazy?”

I’m partial to their albacore tuna pita because, when asked, they serve it in a fluffy gyro wrap with diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce and a hint of what tastes like pickle relish mixed in with the tuna salad, making it just a little more interesting than your run-of-the-stream tuna. We had a smoked turkey club pita the other day with bacon, cheese, lettuce, diced tomatoes and just enough mayo to make it juicy, rather than dry. We asked that they press the pita when they grilled it and, voila, they did it. Just right.

Oh, they also serve “Detroit Coneys and hot dogs.” Maybe we’ll try one of those one of these days when our waistlines give us a nod.

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MUSIC REVIEW: The Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell

March 16th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 16, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

There’s a difference between a conductor and a leader. For centuries, there were no conductors. Not as we know them today, anyway. There were musicians — often composers — who stood in front of an ensemble with a huge, rod-like staff, pounding it on the ground in time to the music. Jean-Baptiste Lully, the famous 17th century French composer, died that way. In a moment of over-enthusiasm, he stabbed himself in the foot with his counting stick, gangrene set in and, a couple of months later, he was dead.

The world-renowned Academy of St Martin in the Fields, a chamber orchestra founded almost 60 years ago by Sir Neville Marriner, is known as one of the finest “conductorless” orchestras in the world. Sir Neville, along with the esteemed violinist Iona Brown, usually led the group from the first chair (concertmaster’s seat), with a simple nod of the head, raise of the chin, full-body breath or signal with the bow.

A few years ago, Joshua Bell, the violin virtuoso, was named music director of the ASMF and, since that time, the ensemble and Bell have taken the group to an even higher super-star status among world class chamber orchestras. Bell, something of a rock-star in appearance and demeanor, is as much a showman as he is a violinist. His exaggerated gestures, while playing or leading, are both distracting and comical and, we’re sorry to say, he’s become a caricature of himself.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, on the other hand, plays better than ever, in spite of the machinations Bell brings, either in front of them or from the piano bench he uses when he plays first chair.

Last week at the Van Wezel, ASMF brought a program of varied works starting with the E Major Violin Concerto by Bach. A work for strings, Bell led and soloed at such a brisk tempo any other ensemble would have fallen apart. Not so with the ASMF, who seem able to play at any speed with musicality and intelligence. Bell, for all his spastic maneuverings, plays like a god and, if you stop looking and simply listen, all is right with the world.

Their interpretation of the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 was one of the cleanest, freshest I’ve ever heard. Again, looking at Bell — this time seated as concertmaster and leader — was terribly distracting and his cavorting almost ruined a great musical performance. Looking at him, one would never know his ensemble was playing with such incredible finesse because his awkward movements were crude, rough and disturbing. But the players were so engrossed and absorbed in making music, the results were mesmerizingly beautiful. Perhaps Bell is such a wonderful musician and colleague they’re able to take his mannerisms with a grain of British salt. But it was difficult for me not to be put off.

This is not to say Bell isn’t a great player. His performance in Saint-Saens’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” was nothing short of brilliant. He and the ASMF had wonderful elasticity of phrasing.

Best of all was their reading of Schubert’s D Minor String Quartet (arranged by Mahler for string orchestra), “Death and the Maiden.” Here, Bell’s histrionics took a backseat to the music and the results were spectacular.

I’m not usually fond of orchestral arrangements of chamber works. Mendelssohn’s famous Octet is, for me, much better when played by eight individuals than an entire string orchestra. In the same way, when Mahler arranged “Death and the Maiden,” for larger forces, the music became thicker and more dense. But Bell and the Academy clarified everything with a transparency of playing that was precise, sheer and very beautiful in sound and intention. The second movement, which is based on Schubert’s famous song of the same name, was played with such translucency, it was like coming out of a forest and finding sunlight.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields is a magnificent ensemble. Everything they touched last week turned to gold. Joshua Bell is still a rock star and there’s no doubting his musicality or musical intentions. But his eccentricities are starting to overshadow his virtuosity and it would be a shame if he were to allow that to continue.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks VI: ‘Exotic Stories’

March 12th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 10, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The Sarasota Orchestra played a program this past weekend filled with so much color, it was like visiting the Louvre. And, although the title of the series was “Exotic Stories,” it was more like pictures at an exhibition. Our tour was conducted by Mei-Ann Chen, who returned to the Sarasota Orchestra’s podium for the first time since her initial appearance here a couple of years ago.

The first gallery was brimming with oriental art and featured a five-minute work by the prolific Chinese-Canadian composer, An-Lun Huang. Although he’s not yet that well known in the West, Huang has written 20 symphonies and almost a dozen operas. His “Saibei Dance,” which is a brief but energetic segment from his “Saibei Suite” No. 2, sounds like Bizet and Borodin meeting on the Steppes of Central Asia. It’s picturesque, exciting and the perfect overture to introduce the colorful work that followed on our musical exhibition.

Maurice Ravel was, along with his other French friends of the Impressionist period, the Claude Monet of the music world. His piano concerto in G major is filled with intriguing overlays of color that have both Asian and American influences. Jean-Philippe Collard, the soloist in the work, tinted the music with textures from crystalline tinkles to percussive, hard-driving strokes, while Chen sensitively sculpted orchestral responses. From the opening clap of the slap-stick to the Gershwinesque melodies of the first movement, Chen and Collard dug into the brilliant colors Ravel wove to give us an exhilarating reading of the outer movements.

The adagio section was like a wash of oil paints Monet might have used to make an aural painting of his water lilies. Gentle but seductive, Collard was both soloist and accompanist as Ravel’s pianistic sounds enhanced the solos in the orchestra. Jerome Robbins knew what he was doing when he turned this great piano concerto into a ballet and Collard, with Chen, danced it beautifully.

The third, and final, gallery of art took us to Sinbad’s sea and the old festivals of Baghdad as Rimsky-Korsakov portrayed the tale of “Scheherazade” in the guise of a concerto for orchestra. Pacing plays an important role in storytelling, and Scheherazade bet her life on her abilities to charm, seduce and entertain the Sultan, who threatened to kill her unless she kept him diverted.

The composer gave every instrument in the orchestra a chance to weave a spell, and Chen, an animated conductor, knows how to pull musical colors from the orchestra without getting in the way of what the composer intended. Daniel Jordan’s superb reading of the violin solos made for some of the finest, lushest playing he’s done.

“Scheherazade” may be a brilliant piece of program music, but it’s even more of a concerto; it puts the spotlight on almost every principal player in the orchestra, and, if we had the space in this column, we’d name every name. The playing was sensational, and Chen gave solo bows to every principal, followed by a nod to entire sections at the conclusion of the performance. The tumultuous, rock star ovation at the end, was certainly deserved.

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