June LeBell shares highlights of her career at charity luncheon

April 11th, 2016Posted by admin


Front row, from left: Shirley Taradash, June LeBell, Edward Alley LeBell. Back row, from left: Amy NaDell, Jody Jorgensen, Kathie Majerchin, Monika Templeman, Laurel Lynch, Janet Stickel and Jan Hasler.

From the Herald-Tribune:

The Lakewood Ranch Women’s Club held a “From Opera Stage to Microphone” fundraiser March 2 in the Fete Ballroom at the Polo Grill.

The luncheon, which attracted about 100 people, raised money for the club’s adopted charities — SOLVE Maternity Homes, Hope Family Services and SMART Riding Therapies. The featured speaker was June LeBell, an award-winning broadcaster, music critic, singer, author and chef.

LeBell, who hosts “June LeBell’s Musical Conversations” on WSMR-FM, shared highlights of her career and was recently honored by the Broadcasters Club of Florida with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

LeBell attended the High School of Music and Art and Mannes College of Music in New York City and the Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. She also was a student of acclaimed soprano Adele Addison.

After a singing career, LeBell entered broadcasting in 1973 at WQXR in New York City, where she produced, wrote and hosted for 30 years. She interviewed hundreds of musical celebrities to include in her cookbook, “Kitchen Classics from the Philharmonic.”

The ladies were particularly fascinated with the wonderful personal stories that Lebell shared about the creation of her classical music-themed cookbook. With 50 great illustrations by Al Hirschfeld, and 150 terrific recipes from people affiliated with the NY Philharmonic in its first 150 years — from Toscanini to Pavarotti– and short, pithy text about how these great performers ate before, during and after a concert, their favorite restaurants and, just for fun, music to listen to (complete with record or CD number) while preparing or eating the delectable dish.

She also warned that some of these are really bad puns — a chopped chicken liver recipe is set to music by Frederic CHOPPIN. The recipes were given to LeBell by classical music celebrities on her daily cooking show on WQXR in New York City. They were each tested and tasted for quality, ease of preparation and proper measurements and she assured us there are absolutely no “poisonous” recipes in this excellent cookbook.

LeBell and her husband Edward Alley live in Sarasota. She said they enjoy living in Sarasota because it is a cultural treasure that rivals New York City, with the added benefit of year round sunshine and great beaches.

— Submitted by Monika Templeman


Opera review: ‘The Italian Girl in Algiers’

February 23rd, 2017Posted by admin


Sarasota Opera delivers hilarity in true Rossini fashion.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 19, 2017
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Rossini wrote his opera, “L’Italiana in Algeri,” when he was barely 22. “The Barber of Seville” would come along three years later — hardly a twinkle in its young father’s eye. But Rossini’s wit, wildness and most of all, Champagne bubbles, were already in full bloom.

At the Sarasota Opera’s opening of “L’Italiana” Saturday night, the famous Overture gave us a hint that there were lots of fun and surprises ahead. The Sarasota Opera Orchestra, under the precise and ebullient leadership of Anthony Barrese, gave all the whomps and emphasis to this sparkling score needed to show us the ensemble, now a full week into the season, was very much in tune with itself and the music it was making. Rossini may be playful and fun but, like Mozart before him, clarity and precision are the hallmarks of his music, while the conductor must keep things bubbling along.

The action in this funny romp of an opera, takes place in Algiers, in and around the palace of the Bey, a large, somewhat grandiose and pompous leader who’s grown bored with his current wife, Elvira, and wants to replace her with a tempestuous Italian girl. He doesn’t know who she’ll be, but he seems to have this image in his head of a fiery young thing he’ll be able to tame, molding her with his great prowess to his image of what he really deserves as a wife.

In true Rossini fashion, Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers, gets just what he deserves. It’s how he arrives there that takes us on a two-act, hilarious journey into his court. And, in the process, we’re treated to the shenanigans of his courtiers, a shipwreck that happens to deliver a bevy of Italians he makes into his slaves and, of course, one startlingly gorgeous Italian lady named Isabella.

Isabella, who is on stage almost every moment from the time she arrives in Algiers, is played with fire and conviction by Tara Venditti, who turns her into the adult Despina from Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” She’s clever and conniving, able to twist all men around her finger, and she even sings (as does Despina in the Mozart) that all men are made the same; they’re all fools. And, trapped in this new situation as a replacement wife-to-be, she proceeds to mow down every man who tries to seduce her, except the one she really loves, Lindoro, who happens to be in the court. Of course.

Every voice on stage in this wonderful new production by stage director Mark Freiman, is a fine one. The first act was a bit too careful and studied and, on stage, missed the bubbles that were rising from the orchestra pit. But in Act II, everyone started to relax and have fun, resulting in real Rossiniana and some hilarious bits of stage action.

Actually, the fun began at the finale of Act I, when Freiman introduced some hilarious stage business that took the singers into a crazy wave (think sports waves) and made the audience laugh so hard it almost overpowered the singers. From there on, the schtick, which was carried out to a T by the performers, produced bust-a-gut laughter, the performers all seemed to be having a ball and the Rossini bubbles burst forth from the stage.

“L’Italiana” is an opera that needs great singers, who can negotiate a huge range, lots of fast embellishments, sing patter songs faster than Gilbert and Sullivan ever dreamed up and be individual characters who become beloved by the audience. The character who succeeded best at all this was Isabella’s companion, Taddeo (Bruno Taddia), who knew the style in his bones and went on to inspire both the audience and his compatriots on stage with a wonderful zeal. Elvira (Jessica E. Jones) and her slave and friend, Zulma (Fleur Barron), both accomplished studio artists, were in fine voice and strong character.

Harold Wilson as Mustafa, warmed to his role as the opera progressed, and as he relaxed, he became his character and had less trouble with the musical fioratura and pitch than he had in the beginning. Hak Soo Kim, the tenor in the shoes of Lindoro (Mustafa’s favorite slave who also happens to be madly in love with Isabella), has a fine, vibrant voice that also warmed as he became his character and seemed to have a ball doing it. And Haly, sung by Studio Artist Alexander Charles Boyd, was just right as the conspiratorial Captain of the Algerian corsairs.

Of course, once we meet her, the world of this opera revolves around the diminutive but mighty shoulders of Isabella, and Tara Venditti did her proper justice. She has a smaller voice than we’re used to hearing in this role but with a good, solid more-than-two-octave range that’s smooth from bottom to top, and a great stage demeanor, she brought off the power of this independent woman and twists, not only her stage compatriots around her finger, but also manages to win the hearts of the audience.

The clever sets by scenic designer Michal Schweikardt take us, in the blink of an eye, from rooms inside the palace to the seashore and even a moving ship. They’re well lit by Ken Yunker, and the costumes (sometimes hilarious in themselves), are well conceived by Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Roger Bingaman’s small but impressive chorus is powerful and well acted by Sarasota Opera Apprentice Artists.

For a respite from traffic and politics of the day, “L’Italiana” is the perfect prescription.


Opera review: ‘Madama Butterfly’

February 15th, 2017Posted by admin


Sarasota Opera’s singers take flight for ‘Madama Butterfly’


Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 12, 2017
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Sarasota Opera opened its 2017 winter season Saturday night with a scenically and vocally beautiful production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” David P. Gordon’s stunning set, which has not only served this company well, but has also been rented by a significant number of other discerning opera companies, was enhanced beautifully by Ken Yunker’s magnificent lighting, giving us beautiful sunsets, starlit skies and the charming sense of a Japanese landscape, complete with so many flowers their scent almost wafted to the last row.

Victor DeRenzi, artistic director of the Sarasota Opera, was in the pit leading the Sarasota Opera Orchestra, a large ensemble that gathers here every winter from points as far away as San Francisco and Santa Fe, to give this company its very own orchestra — and a good one it is. Yes, there was a bit of ragged playing at the start, but it was opening night, and the ensemble hasn’t been together that long. Give them a few performances, and they’ll be their usual spot-on selves.

“Madama Butterfly” has become one of opera’s classic works, with audiences clamoring for it time after time. “Un bel di,” is probably one of the favorite soprano arias of all time, and when it’s sung in the context of this great Japanese-American tragedy, it’s even more moving.

By the time we hear that famous aria, we’ve gotten to know Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), quite well. We know she’s only 15 when she’s married to Lt. B.F. Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy. A scant three years later, at the age of 18, she kills herself, because he’s legally married an American woman and is too much of a coward to tell Butterfly himself that he also wants to take the child born to her back to America, leaving Butterfly with nothing.

Joanna Parisi, the Butterfly in this production, has a large, mostly beautiful voice that is powerful and lustrous. But she misses the nuances of the grace, the fan fluttering, the walk and, most of all, the kneel, that would make her distinctly Japanese. Her “Un bel di” was well sung, as was just about everything she did vocally, bringing tears to my eyes up until the climax with her Addio to her little boy before she takes her life. Unfortunately, she let the emotion of the music and story get the better of her, pushing her voice beyond beautiful and almost screaming at the poor little tyke, who was amazingly brave in the face of all that ranting and raving.

Her handmaiden, Suzuki, was sung by Laurel Semerdjian, whose gorgeous voice, almost a contralto rather than mezzo, was clear, clean and well produced. It was her offstage sobbing when she realized Butterly was about to kill herself that resonated most with me in that climactic scene. It was heartbreaking.

Pinkerton, the cad, was both well acted and well sung by Antonio Coriano. He tends to push his already large voice at times, but for the most part, he sang with both passion and tenderness throughout the opera.

Cesar A. Mendez Silvagnoli took the important role of Sharpless, the U.S. Consul in Nagasaki. His acting was quite believable, but his voice, which has a wooly sound, was hard to hear over the orchestra. And the stalwart bass, Young Bok Kim, made a terrifyingly angry Uncle Bonze, who not only disowns Butterfly, but also gets her entire entourage of friends and family to do the same, leaving her alone and lonely.

Sean Christensen, a studio artist with Sarasota Opera, turned out a suitably slimy Goro, the marriage broker (and possibly the tallest one I’ve ever seen), while smaller parts, including The Prince Yamadori (Suchan Kim) and Kate Pinkerton (Rachelle Moss), were taken by other studio artists and apprentices.

The chorus (apprentice artists) and principals often had a hard time chasing the orchestra, but again, it was opening night and tempos, along with rough edges, will be smoothed out.

Sarasota Opera has a beautiful production in its “Madama Butterfly,” but the stage director, John Basil, fell very short in his interpretation. He seemed to miss the importance of the Japanese side of this work, leaving the chorus and Japanese principals with little to do and very little in the way of authentic Japanese movements. Doing that did away with the grace and elegance of this culture and its importance to the opera. His Americans, except for the regal Kate Pinkerton, were suitably oafish. But so were his Japanese characters, so they became more caricatures of a culture than the real culture Puccini wrote so eloquently into his music.

Puccini was a real man of the theater. He knew every nuance, every turn of the fan, and he wrote it into his score. It’s a shame the stage director didn’t understand the composer.


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks 4

February 7th, 2017Posted by admin


Sarasota Orchestra’s masterworks programming shows what a difference a century can make.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 5, 2017
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Sandwiching “Strata,” the Symphony Number 6 of contemporary Estonian composer, Erkki-Sven Tüür, between two of the most beloved and well-known works of 19th century Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a stroke of magic on the part of the Sarasota Orchestra and Music Director Anu Tali. First of all, the Tüür added a freshness and difference that’s necessary in concert halls these days. It also showed us how much can happen musically in just over a century. And, believe me, it’s a lot. And it gave the Orchestra and Tali a chance to present the Symphony in its United States premiere.

Mr. Tüür was in attendance at the concert at the Van Wezel Sunday afternoon and he spoke to us briefly and eloquently before any of the music began. He invited us to enter what he called his “sound world,” and to use our differences to interpret his world.

A few days before the series of four concerts (all well attended or sold out), I had the opportunity to speak with the composer and one of the things he described was the landscape of his home and studio on the coast of Estonia. He described walking with the forest on one side and the ocean on the other so my imagination was already primed to hear “Strata” (Layers), as if I were walking with him.

“Strata” is, indeed a world of sounds: forest murmurs, crunching leaves, winds rustling bare, cold tree limbs, waves crashing against the shore, someone being chased through the woods. How does Tüür achieve these sounds? He uses a full orchestral contingent with heavy brass, strings playing ponticello (the bow is right on top of the bridge making an eerie, whistling sound) and a percussion section that runs the gamut from bongos and chimes to vibraphone and xylophone.

Music is unified, organized sound and “Strata” certainly is organized. It’s fascinating in that it held my attention and, at times, moved me. It has no program attached; no story. It’s up to us to add our own imaginations. The question is, well written as it is, is its intellect in overdrive, washing out what we think of as Music? I’ll leave that up to the listeners. For me, it was interesting but I was so glad my old friend, Tchaikovsky, was also in attendance.

The program opened with a four minute gem, the “Melodie” from “Souvenir d’un lieu cher,” written by Tchaikovsky during a respite from a particularly trying year in the composer’s life. Originally for violin and piano, Alexander Glazunov arranged it for orchestra and violin and the soloist at this series was Sarasota Orchestra concertmaster, Daniel Jordan. Jordan has a sweet, beautiful sound and the “Melodie” is a sweet, beautiful piece. It was almost as if they were made for each other.

Following the Tüür and intermission, we settled in for a real old friend, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number 1 in B-flat minor, the work we all associate with Van Cliburn’s triumph in Moscow all those many years ago. When the Orchestra and their soloist, Simon Trpčeski, began the work, I swear I heard a sigh of recognition and relief pour out of the audience.

Trpčeski is a pianist of power, passion and spontaneity. There are many transitions from orchestra to piano and there were many times Tali had the ensemble in one tempo and the pianist picked up the speed and the group had to scramble a bit to change gears. But no notes were lost and, fortunately, Tali is an excellent accompanist. She and Trpčeski seemed to have a great sense of each other so it was exciting to hear them make music together.

The Concerto was beautifully sculpted and, except for a rough start in the brass and some intonation problems in the winds, it was a gorgeous performance with a luscious little duet between first cello and first oboe in the second movement and some wonderfully colorful playing from the soloist.

The encore, a Waltz by Chopin, dedicated to the Sarasota Orchestra by the pianist, was the perfect ending to a varied and interesting concert.


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra: ‘Sinking of the Titanic’

February 1st, 2017Posted by admin


A moving, expressive tribute to the tragic story of the Titanic.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 30, 2017
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

The tragic story of RMS Titanic has long been a source of inspiration for books, movies and even a Broadway show, but Gavin Bryars’ conceptual sonic landscape, “The Sinking of the Titanic,” as presented Jan. 29 by the musicians of the Sarasota Orchestra, is in many ways more grasping and moving than other efforts.

Bryars envelops us in a series of sounds, mostly musical, some electronic and some merely suggestive, allowing the listener to virtually relive the final 40 or so minutes before and after the ship sank.

This was not a programmatic narration of events represented by musical surges and climaxes, but more a compilation of sounds that began and ended with faint chimes and calming sounds of strings intoning the Episcopal hymn “Autumn,” which according to a survivor, was played by the musicians in the last moments. There is also evidence that the Titanic musicians played “Nearer My God to Thee” as well, but Bryars chose “Autumn,” with its text “Hold me up in mighty waters” more than appropriate.

“Sinking of the Titanic” is scored only for the lower voices of the orchestra, with violas, celli, basses, bass clarinet, bassoon, horns, tuba, keyboard and percussion arranged stereophonically on the Holley Hall stage, accompanied by a recorded electronic score, at times with voices, creating an atmosphere that is at once moving and expressive. The piece is mostly linear, with more evocative sounds than harmonies, except for those insinuated by the recurring phrases of “Autumn”, but it is never boring.

Playing without a conductor, the 19 Sarasota Orchestra musicians were flawless, capturing the mood and forward motion of the score. They also enhanced the silences, since the soundscape paused to almost let us catch our breath before moving toward its inevitable end. As the onstage music became softer and more distant, it was replaced by the electronic score, as if the music was continuing to be heard from the depths as the ship slowly sank, and then we were submerged in a silence that seemed to last for minutes, until the lights came up slowly, bringing us back to reality after this most moving experience.

In her four seasons as music director, Anu Tali has not only led the musicians of the Sarasota Orchestra to greater musical heights, but she has also enlarged the orchestra’s repertoire and introduced Sarasota to many outstanding musical works, giving us an appreciation for contemporary musical experiences we would never have before considered in our “traditional” Sarasota.


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks 3

January 9th, 2017Posted by admin


The Sarasota Orchestra’s illustrates the beauty that made these Beethoven and Brahms pieces classics.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 8, 2017
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

An all Beethoven or Brahms concert is somewhat a rarity in these days of diverse programming, but that’s exactly what the Sarasota Orchestra gave us this past weekend with Beethoven’s Coriolanus Overture and Third Piano Concerto and the Brahms First Symphony. These works (oddly enough, all in the key of C Minor), are so familiar, I even heard the term “warhorses” uttered by one concertgoer. And I must confess that after performing, conducting and living with these works for over 60 years, I wasn’t quite expecting the wonderful musical experience that ensued.

Under the skillful and most musical conducting of Case Scaglione, former associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic and now conducting worldwide, these three works revealed a transparency, musicality and beauty that has made them classics. Scaglione’s beat is conservative, clear, and concise; he knows what he wants from the music, and even within the confines of the Van Wezel acoustics, he achieves it.

Soloist in the Beethoven was pianist Yulianna Avdeeva, who played with consummate elegance and an abundance of technique. Her Beethoven was more introspective than dynamic, but she made her musical point. Scaglione and the orchestra accompanied her with great sensitivity. She rewarded the audience with a virtuoso performance of Mendelssohn’s “Spinning Song,” which delighted everyone.

Brahms’ First Symphony is a cornerstone of the orchestral literature, combining the form and clarity of the Classical Period with the lush melodies and harmonies of the Romantic. Throughout the work, he recaps fragments of melody, rhythm, and harmony, creating a great arch of musical ideas, unifying the colossal entity into one great composition. Scaglione knows that unity and created a performance of nuance and control, from almost inaudible pizzicato strings to the stirring brass chorale of the last movement; yet the instrumental soloists played with a freedom of expression, as if the entire symphonic performance was chamber music. This symphony is full of orchestral solos, each one played to perfection, and those players were rewarded with solo bows at the end of the evening.

With each performance, the Sarasota Orchestra continues to grow as an ensemble, and it is indeed unfortunate that this outstanding orchestra is not better known outside Sarasota.


Music review: ‘Too Hot to Handel’

December 13th, 2016Posted by admin


Gloria Musicae and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s sold-out performance erupted with soul.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: December 11, 2016
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

At approximately 5:34 last Sunday afternoon, an eruption of sound occurred at the Sarasota Opera House which would have registered at least 8.0 on the Richter scale and lifted the roof of that venue a good six inches. Not an earthquake, it was the outpouring of applause and cheers for a completely sold-out performance of “Too Hot to Handel” presented by the Gloria Musicae Singers and West Coast Black Theater Troupe.

“Too Hot to Handel”— a contemporary Gospel, Jazz and Motown version of Handel’s “Messiah” was conceived by Marin Alsop, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, and arranged by Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson some twenty-five years ago. An instant hit, it has since been performed annually for the last fifteen years in both Detroit and Chicago, as well as an increasing number of cities across the United States.

Bringing it to Sarasota was the idea of Joseph Holt, Artistic Director of Gloria Musicae, and being the champion of collaboration that he is, he immediately sought—and received— a partnership with Nate Jacobs and the West Coast Black Theater Troupe.

“Too Hot to Handel” uses Handel’s text and melodies, but sets them in an inspired combination of orchestral and choral arrangements that varies from full blown Gospel writing (all the choral music), to cool jazz, bebop and Motown beat, with all of it delivered in an out and out tribute to Soul Music everywhere. I heard some jazz sounds of Stan Kenton, cool Gerry Mulligan, and real down home Gospel, together with soaring voices that filled the Sarasota Opera House, but without being overwhelmed by volume. Christianson and Anderson cleverly substituted syncopated rhythms for most of Handel’s rapidly moving coloratura passages, with good results.

Soloists included Syreeta Banks, Sherwood Davis, Samone Hicks, Nate Jacobs, Elaine Mayo, and Leon Pitts from the WBTT, and Amy Connors from Gloria Musicae. They were joined by a combined chorus of almost 50 voices from Gloria Musicae and WBTT, accompanied by the “Gloria Musicae Orchestra” (primarily members of the Sarasota Orchestra), augmented by six saxophones, a Hammond B3 organ, Andrew Lapp’s piano, and George Nickson presiding at the drum set, who gave us a percussive and persuasive preview of the “Hallelujah Chorus”, using all the drums he could reach.

All the soloists were impressive in their recitatives and arias, each of which had been enhanced with both rhythm and orchestral color. Nate Jacobs’ soaring tenor virtually stole the show at the start with “Comfort Ye” and “Every Valley”, which had a rolling chorus part added to the aria. This certainly convinced all of us that this was in no way our mother’s “Messiah” — and happily so. Each soloist had a unique style and the musical setting of their numbers added emphasis to the traditional text. Elaine Mayo gave us a low, dark, and smoky voiced rendering of “But Who May Abide…” in a voice reminiscent of Savannah Churchill, accompanied by smooth reed sounds with just a bit of bebop in their flavor.

And on and on it went. Then Amy Jo Connors’ stirring gospel rendition of “He Shall Feed His Flock”, together with driving rhythm and chorus, served to prepare everyone for the final numbers: “His Yoke is Easy”, with virtuoso bass playing by John Miller, and the Grand Finale—“ Hallelujah Chorus”, which everyone had been waiting for.

The “Hallelujah Chorus” which has deep meaning for so many of us, ended the performance: a forceful, driving, full-out gospel hand-clapping celebration of everything this wonderful work has to offer for any season. The audience could not stop applauding and cheering—and they were rewarded with a reprise of the final soul-lifting moments.

It was reported that a couple of people left early in the performance, saying that “It was a travesty of Messiah”! Not so … Handel, with his flair for ornamentation and improvisation, would have loved it! And perhaps “Too Hot to Handel” could become an annual visitor.


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks 2

December 7th, 2016Posted by admin


Every section of the orchestra was showcased throughout the charming concert.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: December 4, 2016
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

“Some pieces are so popular that nobody plays them anymore.” At least that’s what Yogi Berra might have said about two of the works in the Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks 2 concert this weekend.

The two works in question are Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.”

By the time he wrote “Appalachian Spring” in 1944, Copland had firmly arrived at his American sound — that hollow prairie sound of intervals of fourths and fifths, lots of changing rhythmic meter and the use of folk or folk-like ballads, that today identify his music instantly. Composed originally as a “Ballet for Martha (Graham),” “Appalachian Spring” has all of these features, and I was interested to hear how Anu Tali, with her European background and training, would treat this American icon.

No surprise here, for her sense of musical organization and emphasis on clean and clear playing and phrasing came through as always, and this performance of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” was a fine one, once again showcasing the virtuosity and musicality of the Sarasota Orchestra. OK, so the hoedown section of the piece might have been a bit square, but I originally come from West Texas, where the fiddle playing was anything but.

Dvorak’s masterful “New World Symphony” presented the talents and abilities of Tali and the orchestra musicians at their best. Several years ago, the Sarasota Orchestra presented and in-depth program on the “New World Symphony,” illustrating the many sources and actual songs Dvorak used as inspiration and basis for his symphony. But today, we were presented with the complete and finished product, sculpted and polished to a beautiful sheen by Tali and her orchestra.

Every section in the orchestra burst forth in all its glory to give this repertoire standard a wonderful performance. I was particularly impressed by the way Tali had obviously studied and worked with the organization of the piece, which gives a conductor special insight into the structure of the piece and brings forth an interpretation that is both logical and musical. Then, every familiar melody and passage fits into place, and the audience feels the music as the composer wished. Case in point was the beautiful second movement with the English horn solo, beautifully played by Michael Austin. Tali’s special gift for sculpting musical form and phrase was evidenced here by the transitions between sections and the absolutely glorious playing of the muted strings.

Every section of the orchestra was showcased in some way throughout the concert, and every soloist in the wind and brass section was spot on in all of their highlighted passages.

Sandwiched in between these two favorites was Vadim Gluzman’s fantastic performance of the lesser known First Violin Concerto of Prokoviev. Defying the usual fast-slow-fast format of most violin concerti, this one reverses it by having the slower movements as bookends of the concerto. Gluzman showed a beautiful sound and excellent phrasing throughout and is a no-nonsense performer — excellent playing from start to finish. The two slower movements were lyrical, sometimes with Prokoviev’s angular melodies over romantic, almost impressionistic sounds from the orchestra, and the overall feeling in much of the Scherzo second movement had echoes of the final movement of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, which was written about the same time.

Gluzman rewarded his enthusiastic audience with a dazzling performance from Ysaye’s Sonata No. 2 for solo violin, with bits of the “Dies Irae” theme in the coda section.

And Anu Tali, who always leave us with a little orchestral bonbon, took the audience for a walk with Gershwin’s “Promenade,” also known as “Walking the Dog,” a charming, light ending to an afternoon of very special music making.


Music review: ‘Guys and Dolls’

November 22nd, 2016Posted by admin


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Music review: ensemblenewSRQ

November 18th, 2016Posted by admin


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


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

ensemblenewSRQ — remember that name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Opera review: ‘The Secret World of Og’

November 14th, 2016Posted by admin


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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