Music review: ‘West Side Story’

November 17th, 2015Posted by admin


Asolo Repertory Theatre’s raw, powerful production is on par with the show’s original Broadway run.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 15, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Shakespeare’s words, written in the 1590s, were the music that made us weep over the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet. In the 1950s, Leonard Bernstein gave us the music that amazingly intensified one of the most tragic of all dramatic tragedies. Now, The Asolo Repertory Theatre takes this timeless story, score, dancing and choreography to an almost unbearable level in a perfect, unbridled, powerful, raw and sensitive production that’s the best, anywhere, in memory.

Shakespeare’s poetry is music. But Bernstein’s score takes this eternal tragedy to another place, especially with Arthur Laurents’ book, Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ 20th century balletic, heroic, athletic choreography and direction.

In the hands of director Joey McKneely, the Asolo’s “West Side Story” is a punch-in-the-gut knock out. McKneely worked with Robbins and, although he’s choreographed myriad productions around the world, this is the first time he’s also directed it. I saw the original Broadway production and I don’t remember it being this powerful. Yes, I’m no longer a 13-year-old, but the initial experience stayed with me and, what McKneely has done, far surpasses what I remember.

On October 18th, 1955, Robbins wrote, in a letter to Bernstein and Laurents, “About the dancing. It will never be well incorporated into the show unless some of the principals are dancers.” The Asolo production integrates the dancing with the drama with such intensity, you almost forget the people on stage are doing 20th century ballet and you think of them only as the people with whom we associate our lives and our passions.

“West Side Story” is a true depiction of my old neighborhood in New York City. There were lines drawn, blocks not crossed because, even though my family was hardly gang material, there were others – Puerto Ricans in those days – who lived across the street. Fear of the unknown was rampant and we didn’t cross the lines laid out for us by ghosts we didn’t question. We all went to the same school but, when the bell rang at 3 p.m., we went our separate ways. They went east. We went west.

Leonard Bernstein and his partners originally thought of placing the musical version of “Romeo and Juliet” in the Bronx, pitting Catholics against Jews. But, as Bernstein pointed out in one of his letters, “…we have abandoned the whole Jewish-Catholic premise…and have come up with what I think it is going to be: two teen-age gangs as warring factions, one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled ‘Americans.’ Suddenly it all springs to life. I hear rhythms and pulses, and – most of all – I can sort of feel the form.”

In the Asolo’s production, Marc Koeck, as Tony, and Jenna Burns, the Maria, capture the soul of Bernstein, Sondheim and Robbins with an innocence, a youth, and an ethereal unworldliness, that is exactly what the creators were striving for. Koeck is the ultimate Broadway baritenor: hunky and handsome, with the demeanor of a young Jacques d’Amboise and the voice of John Raitt. He handles the impassioned but guileless sound of “Something’s Coming,” with the same ease he uses his gentle, clarion head tones at the end of “Maria.”

Burns is the ideal Maria, dramatically, vocally and balletically. From the ingenuousness of her singing “I Feel Pretty” to the raw, gutsy power that spills from her as she points her finger and sings, “Oh, no Anita. No. You should know better.” We feel her overwhelming adoration as she leads the tough-but-tragic Anita to tears and sings, “I have a love.” You see Burns grow from spotless youth to knowing woman and those changes come from her musicality as well as her acting ability.

The whole cast is dramatically and musically strong. But this Anita, Mary Antonini, is among the strongest. Her dancing is the epitome of what Bernstein must have felt when he wrote about those rhythms and pulses. And her singing voice, pure Broadway, combining clarity and belting, makes her character riveting.

The two gangs, The Jets and the Sharks, give us dance sequences right out of New York City Ballet’s heyday. Their singing is appropriately primal; these are kids of the street, kids better suited to scampering over fences than singing opera. But when they do sing, along with their leaders – especially Bernardo (Andres Acosta) – it’s with power and passion.

Then there’s the orchestra, made up of a dozen or so superb musicians under the direction of the exceptionally talented Donald Chan. Together, they gave a pulsing, vibrant support to the singers and dancers on stage that was as strong as the best Broadway orchestras, double their size.

The Asolo’s “West Side Story” opened on Friday the 13th as France was under siege by terrorists. The real world outside was in perfect, horrifying harmony with the play on the stage inside. It brought to mind what a critic in the Washington Post wrote after seeing the original production of “West Side Story,” “The violence is senseless but Leonard Bernstein’s score makes us feel what we do not understand.”


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks I

November 11th, 2015Posted by admin


Sarasota Orchestra and Marc-André Hamelin give a masterful performance


Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 9, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The first Masterworks concert of the season was called “The Emperor,” after its centerpiece, Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. But that one title didn’t come close to covering the empirical intention of this performance.

Pairing Shostakovich with Beethoven is like taking two giants of music and partnering them in a seismic setting that’s sure to knock you for a loop. We knew that the moment the Orchestra began the Shostakovich “Festive Overture,” a vibrant fanfare that heralded the rest of the program. From the Olympian brass opening to the wonderfully rhythmic definition in the instrumentation, Music Director Anu Tali sculpted a distinctly clear and colorful sound.

Internationally renowned pianist Marc-André Hamelin has been garnering rave reviews in concert halls from the capitals of Europe to the major orchestras of America. He was in Sarasota before, playing a solo recital for the Sarasota Concert Association but this time we had a chance to hear him in a concerto. And not just any concert. Beethoven’s Fifth and final piano concerto, known as “The Emperor.”

Hamelin has an understated pianistic personality. To watch him at the keyboard, you might think, “No big deal.”

But he has technique to burn and an innate musicality that often makes the music new and fresh. The opening movement of the Beethoven was very fast but still breathed. Unfortunately, because of the tempo, it also lacked the depth of emotion and monolithic, vertical stature that makes Beethoven sound like Beethoven. The following movements, however, were beautifully paced. Hamelin’s pristine, effortless technique combined with the sublime accompanying of the Orchestra deftly led by Tali, made for a beautifully proportioned rendering of this masterpiece. Tali tastefully teased the transition from the slow movement into the finale in a way that allowed Hamelin’s musicianship to flower and the music to bloom.

Then we all switched gears for the Symphony Number 5 of Shostakovich. This can be a dangerous work because the strings are so exposed but the Sarasota Orchestra, in unison, sounded like one player. And that wonder continued throughout the work.

Contrasts and colors, tension, long poignant phrasing and the throbbing undercurrent of real Russian passion made this a spectacular performance of this great work. It’s a wonderful symphony filled with longing, rage, love, and sardonic humor with a palpable yearning to be free. It opens with a fury that Shostakovich, in the second movement, turns into a tipsy waltz that makes you imagine old Soviet bureaucrats, drunk on volumes of Vodka, stumbling around with great humor, never realizing the laugh’s on them. The third movement, in turn, has the composer weeping for Mother Russia. But the finale is triumphant and we know what Shostakovich could only imagine: the Wall tumbling down.

Shostakovich had a great sense of humor but he had to be careful how it was used or it could have meant his life and livelihood. Anu Tali chose an encore that showed the composer’s penchant for fun: his virtuosic arrangement of what he called “The Tahiti Trot,” aka Vincent Youman’s “Tea for Two.” Like Stravinsky’s setting of “Happy Birthday,” it’s always a surprise and always fun.

Best of all, the music at this concert had a clarity and brilliance not heard before. The reason? The Van Wezel has been tuned. Just as a great violin relies on the wood of its case and the skill of its builder, so a concert hall needs to be “tuned.” The Van Wezel has invested in a new shell that surrounds the stage, allowing the sound of the really fine Sarasota Orchestra finally to be heard. Remember, no microphones are used to amplify this type of concert and, for the first time in memory, we were able to hear the excellence of this ensemble. It doesn’t take the place of a real concert hall, built for acoustic sound, but it’s a great start.


Music review: “La bohème”

November 3rd, 2015Posted by admin


Attention to detail allows a timeless classic to shine.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 1, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Sarasota Opera opened its fall season over the weekend with Puccini’s “La bohème,” but, because the essence was in the elements, this was a production that took the composer at his word and left a lasting impression. “La bohème” is probably one of the most popular operas. It’s the one we see most often, and it’s the one we take newbies to see so that they’ll come back for more.

Puccini, as we’ve said many times before, was a true man of the theater. He knew how to take real people and make us feel as if we’ve stepped into their lives. See it once, and you want to know more about the Bohemian quartet of artists in Paris and their lovers. See it over and over throughout your life time, and you watch each of them grow and become part of your family. No matter how many times you see it, in a good production, “La bohème” brings tears to your eyes because of its characters, its story and its myriad melodies that stay with you forever.

In the hands of stage director Stephanie Sundine, these old friends on stage grew larger than life. Little touches, like the muff Mimi asks for on her death bed, took on a new light as, with her last breath, she drops it on the floor and one of the Bohemians, Schaunard (a musician), not realizing she’s died, goes to tuck her hand inside it. As he does that simple movement, he realizes she’s dead and our onstage world collapses. A small touch, but a brilliant one that’s not often done.

It’s those little things that make Sundine’s direction special.

The first act got off to a slightly shaky start, with conductor Victor DeRenzi chasing the orchestra and singers into tempos that were a bit beyond what allows Puccini’s score to breathe. But, with the following three acts, DeRenzi settled into a beautifully musical pacing, allowing the Sarasota Orchestra and his singers onstage to shine.

Martin Nusspaumer, as the poet Rodolfo, had a few moments of difficulty with some of his high notes, sounding worn and tired. But, after long rehearsals, that sometimes happens on opening nights. And, as he relacxed into his role — especially when he allowed his voice to take on varying colors and textures — his voice began to shine. Rodolfo can be a wimp. He has mixed feelings about the young, sickly woman he’s met on Christmas Eve. He loves her, but he’s not sure he’s good for her. And he’s jealous beyond reason.

Jessica Rose Cambio, our Mimi, has a tendency to push her soprano beyond its limits so that it sometimes takes on a strident sound. But she was, for the most part, convincing as the consumptive Mimi, who sews flowers by day but needs a man to care for her by night.

Marcello, the painter, was played with depth and feeling by Craig Irvin. Jealous and fiery one moment, and a compassionate friend the next, Irvin’s well-rounded, technically mature baritone is perfect for the role. Gideon Dabi as Schaunard and Colin Ramsey as Colline (both Studio Artists), rounded out the quartet of Bohemians with focused sounds and characterizations. In fact, Ramsey’s farewell to his beloved overcoat in the last act was fittingly touching and beautifully sung.

Angela Mortellaro’s Musetta did just what that character is supposed to do: she grew with the role. Musetta, who doesn’t make her appearance until the second act with her well-known, seductive aria, “Quando m’en vo,” comes across as a hot-tempered flirt when we first meet her. But, by the last act, as Mimi is dying, she grows into a loving friend and helpmate. Through her sumptuous voice and fine acting, Morellaro grew with the part and added the needed depth to Puccini’s opera that can sometimes be overlooked.

David P. Gordon’s sets, seen so many times here in the past, had a fresh, vibrant look, with Ken Yunker’s lighting giving the stage the sense of an impressionist painting, straight out of Paris. And Roger Bingaman’s mighty chorus, made up of Studio and Apprentice Artists, along with members of Jesse Martins’ Youth Opera singers, made for a fittingly rambunctious, animated group of Parisian street folks.

“La bohème” might take place in 19th century Paris, but it’s a timeless work. The more we see it, the more we find in it. And thanks to DeRenzi and Sundine, Sarasota Opera’s production is fresh and vibrant. It’s perfect to revisit — and even more perfect as a first-time opera.


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra: “Percussion Perfect”

October 30th, 2015Posted by admin


A pitch-perfect performance at Holley Hall


Originally published in The Observer
Date: October 30, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

In 1964, I was on a scholarship as a Solo Chorister at the Tanglewood Festival. We ate, drank and sang music 24/7 and that meant, when we weren’t working, we were attending performances. At one of the Fromm contemporary concerts, a group of my friends and I found ourselves in paroxysms of laughter while we listened to a new piece of music. We just didn’t get its atonality and sputtering, stuttering rhythms and it sent us into giggle fits that shook our row of seats.

Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder and, when I managed to pull myself together long enough to turn around, I found myself face to face with Aaron Copland, who gave me a look that withered any further smiles, no less sniggers for the rest of the concert.

This past Thursday, members of the Sarasota Orchestra, with percussionist George Nickson in the leading seat, offered a program called “Percussion Perfect” and, of the four well-chosen works, only one reminded me of those offending days at Tanglewood.

It was Mario Davidovsky’s “Flashbacks,” and it truly gave me flashbacks of the music written in the 1960s and 1970s; music I didn’t understand then and I don’t get now. Scored for 24 percussion instruments including marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales (tuned bronze disks), three cymbals, three gongs, bass drum, temple blocks, woodblock, castanets, bongos, five toms (drums), claves (short, thick dowls), triangle, tambourine and guiro (a hollow gourd that makes a ratchet sound), all played by Nickson (who looked like a whirling dervish), the piece also included a flute, piccolo and alto flute (Betsy Hudson Traba), clarinet and bass clarinet (Calvin Falwell), violin (Jennifer Best Takeda), cello (Christopher Schnell) and the largest percussion instrument of them all, piano (Jonathan Spivey).

Oh – I should mention that the piano was “fixed,” or prepared, and Spivey spent much of his time reaching inside the instrument and doing some mysterious plucking and hitting, and at the end of the piece, the stage hands extricated a music stand that had been lying on its side, inside the piano, so Spivey would be able to see the music without the normal music rack getting in the way of his lunges.

“Flashbacks” is as hard to play and pull together as it is to hear. This is the kind of stuff composers were experimenting with in the mid-20th century and I’m glad to say we’ve moved beyond all that to music that incorporates those early etched ideas and makes them into many works with real beauty and meaning, over and beyond what they were trying back then. The funny thing is, “Flashbacks” was written in 1995 and why anyone would want to flashback to those earlier days of trial and error with a piece that’s much more trouble than it’s worth, is beyond me.

What came across, though, was the amazing talent of all the musicians involved, especially Nickson who just nailed it. It’s probably not something you’ll hear again but, for the virtuosity displayed by Nickson and his cohorts, it was worth my 11 minutes of agony.

Funny how you spend more time with a piece like the Davidovsky but, for those not there, I wanted you to get a sense of what we experienced. Maybe that’s why some of those concerts in the olden days were called “Happenings.”

The rest of the program was inventive, fascinating and comprehensible. Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree,” started the evening. It’s a brilliant work that begins with a poem, read in Japanese by timpanist Yoko Kita, and goes on with startlingly beautiful effects made by a trio of percussionists – Nickson, Kita and Bruce Lehman. Among them, they made music with their bells, marimbas and vibraphone that sent shimmers of sounds reverberating through Holley Hall. The idea of “Rain Tree” is to paint a sonic portrait of leaves dripping ethereal raindrops into the ears of the listeners. It was done in a darkened hall with spotlights focused on each percussionist’s solo moments and, while I found the flash of lights on and off a little disconcerting, the music was like watching the ever-widening circles made by splashing in a pond. The three musicians played the work with great beauty and sensitivity.

Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” (Mirror in Mirror), featured cellist Jake Muzzy and Spivey (at a normal piano), playing a work that has both great simplicity and depth of emotion. The simplicity came from the repeated three notes played by the piano while the cello circled those harmonies with ascending and descending scales. The depth was the way they played those lines, imbuing them with color, thoughtfulness, elegance and the kind of musicality that comes only from true musicians.

The final work on the program was “LIgNEouS 1,” by Andy Akiho, who was born in 1979 and wrote this piece just three years ago. Scored for marimba (Nickson), and string quartet (Daniel Jordan, Christopher Takeda, Matt Pegis and Muzzy), this is an inventive, fun, devilishly difficult, whirlwind of a work that shows how incredibly talented Nickson really is. Rhythmically exuberant, it had Nickson at his athletic best, dancing around that five octave marimba and eliciting proclamations of sounds we didn’t know could come from that instrument. Stratospheric glissandi with musical wind, rain, wood and cracking noises turned this musical extravaganza into a stupendous piece that Nickson played the socks off.

The program notes assured us, in a disclaimer: “No marimbas were harmed in the making of this composition.” We saw Nickson in the hallway after the concert and, after all that, he’d barely broken a sweat.


June LeBell interviewing celebrities over the years

October 29th, 2015Posted by admin


Music review: Ringling International Arts Festival

October 20th, 2015Posted by admin


Ringling International Arts Festival’s Asian-themed performances weave Eastern and Western cultures

Originally published in The Observer
Date: October 19, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The Ringling International Arts Festival has taken on a more diminutive focus over the last couple of seasons, but smaller doesn’t necessarily mean lesser.

This year, RIAF turned its attention on Asia, in anticipation of the new Center for Asian Art at the Ringling Museum. The Festival is also centering even more on the unusual; what I’d call Off-Off-Off Broadway, if we were in New York City. You never know quite what you’re going to get, except that it will probably bring back the days of going to a poetry reading or lute recital in a smoky bar in the East Village. Without the smoke.

Much of this season’s RIAF dealt with movement: dance, performance art and circus, with a few musical events (and I use that word advisedly, because they’re more happenings than concerts) sprinkled into the eclectic mix. Of those, we took in Jen Shyu, “Solo Rites: Seven Breaths” and “Orkes Sinten Remen.”

Jen Shyu is a breathtakingly beautiful woman with a vocal technique that would make her the envy of Met Opera stars and a stage presence that is so charming, she makes you gasp with pleasure. Combining languages from Taiwan, Korea, East Timor and a couple of other far-eastern countries, she incorporates English translations into her renditions of folk tales and poems. On the surface, they appear to be of distant cultures, but because of her rare talents as a singer, actor and instrumentalist, she manages to draw us into those realms and feel we’re hearing a story from our own ancestors.

Singing with a range that takes her from the guttural chest tones of a man to the unearthly but beautiful head voice of an angel, she moves through melodies that call for quarter tones and scales foreign to Americans but, because of her communicative ability, make us feel perfectly at home. Moving from far eastern string instruments to a western Yamaha grand piano, she negotiates sounds and pitches as if she’s making them up as she’s weaving stories that leave us entranced.

“Our ancestors left us nothing but culture,” she sings and makes us realize how important ancestors and culture are to life. She has a simplicity on the surface that’s emboldened by a depth only the wise possess. Objects like a floating white cube (the earth) and gossamer robes and scarves (wind and water) are used to shatter our preconceived notions and show us we knew all along that the earth was merely paper waiting to be torn.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was the raucous beat of Orkes Sinten Remen. A wildly popular pop group in Indonesia, this ensemble, consisting of a vocal trio surrounded by a couple of Javanese ukuleles, violin, bass guitar, plucked cello and percussion, had difficulty transcending the language barrier, making it hard to understand what was going on. My initial smiles at the beat of the music and enthusiasm of the performers soon turned to frowns and peeks at my watch, thinking that a little of this goes a long way.

A good beat and graceful hand movements are nice for 10 or 15 minutes, but when those minutes turn into an hour and nothing of depth or interest has come out of it, I get bored. All the songs seemed to be played in the same key or a related key. They were mostly strophic – using the same music over and over for different stanzas, none of which we could understand, whether in English or an island language. I missed the necessary communication that goes beyond a throbbing dance beat and a simplistic chord structure.

Orkes Sinten Remen, with its leader, Djaduk Ferianto, dancers, singers and instrumentalists, had the audience at the Historic Asolo split between those who were tapping their feet and clapping their hands and those who sat in stupefied silence trying to figure out why we were there and what we didn’t get.

After much thought, I came to the conclusion I like variety, color and complexity in performances. Sinten Remen was intensely loud and offered a steady beat, but it lacked the power to move more than my feet.


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Young Persons Concert

October 15th, 2015Posted by admin


Thousands of kids hear the sounds of music.

Originally published in The Observer
Date: October 14, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

I remember my first Young People’s Concert. I was about five, loved music and had started singing before I could say Mama. It was pre-Bernstein and one of my sister’s boyfriends – Stuart Stewart – took me to Carnegie Hall to hear the New York Philharmonic with a very old man conducting. He had a German accent and he called us “boys and girls” and told us about a piece by Beethoven. I got up and walked out. I felt insulted because he was treating us like children and I, with all the wisdom of a five year old, already knew about Beethoven.

Then along came Leonard Bernstein and the music world changed. He never talked down to us, whether we were sitting, rapt, in front of our tiny black and white TVs, were part of his live audience at Carnegie or, blessed child that I was, on stage with him and the Philharmonic, singing music by Aaron Copland. We were equals through the joy of music.

The other day I attended one of the Sarasota Orchestra’s Young Persons Concerts at the Van Wezel. The Orchestra does these for about 10,000 children in this area. That day, we were surrounded by what seemed like a zillion screaming kids who stomped, cheered and roared as conductor Chris Confessore took the podium. Would that adult audiences had that kind of enthusiasm at, um, Old Persons Concerts.

The theme of the one-hour performance was “The Orchestra Games.” Confessore kept his remarks short, to the point and never spoke down to anyone. He kept the focus of the concert on music everyone could relate to. Starting with John Williams’ well-known work written for the Olympic games in Los Angeles, he and the orchestra were positively triumphant, from opening fanfares to the celebratory conclusion, resulting in total silence during the music and a victorious cheering from the listeners at the end, just in the right place.

Rimsky Korsakov’s “Dance of the Tumblers,” from “The Snow Maiden,” came next and Confessore cleverly brought the kids into the music by asking how many of them took acrobatics. When some 1700 hands rose into the air, the conductor knew he’d reached them and began the music.

At this point, I was missing Uncle Lenny’s communicative, enthusiastic erudition that instructed us while we became wrapped up in what he was saying. But Confessore had made the right choice because the next piece on the program, “The Orchestra Games,” by Gregory Smith, taught us everything while keeping our attention with a beautifully written score that had an orchestration that Ravel (one of the greatest orchestrators of them all) would have been proud to call his own. “The Orchestra Games,” narrated from memory by the composer, dressed in a running suit and sounding as if he were having the time of his life, introduced us to all the sections of the orchestra, told a charming story that made the instruments come alive, and kept the kids at the edges of their seats.

Clever, entertaining, charming and fun, Smith’s work is becoming a staple of the youth concert circuit. It’s a terrific piece and never condescends to anyone, including the superb musicians who played it with precision and understanding.

While all this was happening, we couldn’t help but notice that the Van Wezel has invested in a new orchestral shell. It’s no secret that Sarasota’s infamous purple hall is much better equipped for amplified performances than acoustic concerts. The old shell was no help. The new one is a step in the right direction and, once the orchestra gets used to the new sound, their blend, which was heavy on the brass the other day, will improve. But, how do I say this without shouting, We Need a Real Concert Hall. Maybe someday. Maybe in our life time.

The Young Persons Concert concluded with the rousing finale of the “William Tell” Overture and it was loud enough and fun enough to have every child giddy-upping in their seats and galloping off into the sunset.


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Quintets and Tuba

October 7th, 2015Posted by admin


Sarasota Orchestra chamber ensembles display virtuosity

Originally published in The Observer
Date: October 6, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

There’s more to the tuba than an oom-pah-pah. And in Jay Hunsberger’s hands, it’s a solo instrument capable of great emotion, sensitivity and eloquence. In fact, Hunsberger, the Sarasota Orchestra’s principal tubist, is such a virtuoso on this instrument that he could easily go bell to bell with the best of the best from the world’s finest orchestras.

Last week, chamber ensembles from the Sarasota Orchestra presented a program called Quintets and Tuba, and it featured the professional premiere of David Carlson’s Tuba Concerto. Commissioned just a few years ago by Hunsberger’s late partner, Jon Partridge, Carlson worked closely with Hunsberger, bringing out the great virtuosity and musicality of this special player.

In two movements, Carlson managed to show us what a virtuoso of composition he is. It’s difficult to describe new music without associating it with the past, so I must invoke the memory of Ralph Vaughan Williams because Carlson’s Tuba Concerto is, in ways, reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” and “Serenade to Music.”

But Carlson writes as if he’s reinvented the Vaughan Williams sound, bringing the composer into the 21st century with luxuriant harmonies and a freshness that touches on Stravinsky’s dance works.

Elfin, playful, charming, cheeky and puckish, the finale is a gossamer treat. But the opening movement, marked Andante affettuoso, has a mysterious air to it that allows the sensuousness of the tuba, lovingly caressed by Hunsberger, to sound like something both beautiful and otherworldly.

The combination of Hunsberger’s enormous ability backed up by the unheard of, yet successful, pairing of tuba with harp (played with great warmth by Cheryl Losey Feder), and a string ensemble, led by Concertmaster Daniel Jordan, made this a premiere to be reckoned with.

Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, Opus 43, is a well-known and beloved work that is, in style, something like Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations because Nielsen used its movements to celebrate and honor some of his friends, much as Elgar did. But the music is more like Mahler (think the slow movement of that composer’s First Symphony) with a little Walton (“Façade”) and Prokofiev (“Peter and the Wolf”) thrown in for fun.

That’s not to say Nielsen’s four-movement Quintet is derivative. It’s great music that becomes truly impressive when in the hands of talented and appreciative musicians, and flutist Betsy Hudson Traba, oboist (and English horn player) Nicholas Arbolino, clarinetist Bharat Chandra, hornist Joshua Horne and bassoonist Fernando Traba, gave it a splendid reading.

The program opened with Jan Bach’s “Rounds and Dances,” a devilishly difficult work for trumpets (Michael Dobrinski and Gregory Knudsen), horn (Laurence Solowey), trombone (Brad Williams) and tuba (Hunsberger), which was performed with fluency and a lot of fancy, rapid tonguing.

The finale was particularly fascinating because of its hilarious takeoff of the “William Tell” Overture.

Hi Ho, Silver.


Music Review: Sarasota Orchestra Chamber

September 23rd, 2015Posted by admin


Chamber ensembles take audiences around the world in music

Originally published in The Observer
Date: September 23, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The musicians of the Sarasota Orchestra are back in town after summer gigs everywhere from Europe to the Rockies, and several of them began a new season of music-making with a program, aptly titled, “Around the World.”

But this concert, held in Holley Hall for a good-sized crowd, considering the time of year, had more to do with the music they programmed than where they’d spent their summer vacations.

Composer Valerie Coleman’s charming, melodious and rhythmic “Umoja,” got things started in a spirited, fun performance by flutist Betsy Hudson Traba, oboist Terry Orcutt, clarinetist Bharat Chandra, hornist Joshua Horne, and bassoonist Fernando Traba.

Coleman, who’s the flutist with the award-winning Imani Winds, named this piece for the word that means “unity” in Swahili, and it lives up to its name with a bubbling quirkiness that seemed to unite all the musicians in a good swirl of accessible sound.

The same group reassembled for “Architectonics,” a 1984 work by Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur. Betsy Traba introduced the piece by informing us that the composer, born in 1959, had founded a “heavy metal band.” But he assured us he’d given that up and gone straight, and that “Architectonics” wouldn’t sound like heavy metal.

It didn’t. It was a soundscape of contrasts: light and dark; loud and soft. It was here that Orcutt, who will play principal oboe with Sarasota Orchestra this season, while Adam deSorgo does a turn with the Kansas City Symphony, had a chance to shine. Tuur gave the oboe a lonely solo line that showed off his ability to color the same notes with different dynamics. It was impressive playing.

The well-contoured program continued with a Divertimento by British composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, which was performed by Betsy Traba, Orcutt and Chandra. This trio uses the flute as the top voice, the clarinet as the bottom (something like a contralto in an all-treble grouping) and the oboe as the mezzo-like voice in the middle.

Bouncy, blousy and sometimes bluesy, the trio gave it a splendid reading, with Chandra making the most of his repetitive two-note organ point in the fourth movement and everyone joining forces in the declarative fanfare of the fifth.

The landscape changed to Germany for the final work on the program: Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C Minor, with pianist Jonathan Spivey, violinist Jennifer Best Takeda, violist Matthew Pegis and cellist Christopher Schnell. This is a very visceral piece — romantic, rich, warm, guttural and lush.

At times rhythmically reminiscent of the Beethoven’s Fifth, it’s gutsy music, and the players gave it a stylistic, impassioned performance. A great start to a new season.


Music Review: Sarasota Music Festival

June 21st, 2015Posted by admin


Sarasota Music Festival wins for everyone.

Originally published in The Observer
Date: June 21, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

It’s hard to believe but the three week international Sarasota Music Festival has come to an end. It zipped by but everyone who participated, from students and mentors to cheering audiences, came away a little better and a lot changed. This is a teaching and performance festival that attracts superb music students from as far away as Korea and Taiwan. It’s been in existence for more than 50 years, has spawned some of the world’s finest musicians, and the level of performers keeps getting unbelievably higher and better.

The performance part of the festival ended this past weekend with a pair of super concerts in the Sarasota Opera House with Friday night given over to chamber works and Saturday devoted to orchestral repertoire.

Among the highlights Friday was a dynamic performance of the first movement from Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 by Elizabeth Dorman, Alexandra Switala and Sami Myerson who caught just the right style and humor of the piece.

Clarinetist Yoonah Kim, violinist Yezu Elizabeth Woo (both from Juilliard) and pianist Artem Arutyunyan (SMU Meadows School of the Arts) gave a colorful reading of four sections from Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat,” that was so filled with swagger, we hardly missed the narration.

Friday’s program also featured a festival performance premiere of An Octet Movement (Homage to Mendelssohn) played by faculty and students; the opening of Franck’s romantic F Minor Piano Quintet; Beethoven’s Wind Octet in E-flat; and Dvorak’s Piano Quartet No. 2, which led us on a merry modal chase into the gypsy woodlands of the composer’s homeland.

On Saturday, the stage was filled almost entirely with the students of the festival for an orchestral concert led by the illustrious conductor, Hugh Wolff, in his festival debut. Opening with Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto, the musicians offered a robust reading of this exceptionally rhythmic, tonal work that’s a dynamic cross between early Bartok and the Enescu Rhapsodies. Wolff’s precise but energetic conducting brought out the youthful zest of the orchestra. Concertmaster Alexandra Switala, a student at the Curtis Institute, played with a flair and capacity far beyond her years. Watch out for this one. She’s going places, fast.

The concert concluded with a rich, luscious performance of Brahms’ First Symphony in one of the most breath-taking readings, yet. Wolff has a way of sculpting phrases as if they’re flowing, for the first time, from his long, tapered fingertips. He also takes chances with his orchestra, delving into dynamics and colors that bring out the best of the musicians and the score. Switala’s duet with horn player Michelle Hembree (The University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music) was so beautiful, it went beyond imagination or memory.

Between the Ligeti and the Brahms was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a work done much less often than the composer’s jazzy first concerto, his well-known third and fourth, and his heroic fifth. It’s more Mozartean than the other concertos and, with Robert Levin taking the piano part, it seemed to transcend the period.

Levin improvised, not only the cadenzas (bringing a bit of late Beethoven into the picture) but also wove his magic by playing along with the orchestral portions, as was the custom in that era. Colors, delicacies, brilliance, flair and, most of all, truth to style, lifted this performance beyond the norm with Wolff and Levin conspiring to inspire the musicians to peaks they probably didn’t know they possessed. It doesn’t get much better than this but, then, who knows what young prodigious talents will emerge next year, especially under the leadership of conductors like Wolff.