MUSIC REVIEW: Soprano Mary Wilson captivates Sarasota

January 27th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 24, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Mary Wilson, a soprano who’s soloed from the Boston Baroque to the Hollywood Bowl, gave a recital in the home of Lee Dougherty Ross last week and proved why she’s in such demand. The concert, which also featured Dougherty Ross and Nancy Yost Olson as the collaborative pianists and Sarasota Orchestra violinist Margot Zarzycka, was presented as a prize that had been auctioned by Key Chorale and the Artist Series of Sarasota. And it was exactly what vocal chamber music — or any chamber music — should be: intimate, charming and beautifully done.

Sitting on everything from settees and couches to folding chairs and bar stools, the audience heard a wide range of music so well performed, the lack of programmatic theme just didn’t matter.

Bernstein’s “Simple Song,” from his “Mass,” is anything but simple. It needs a great vocal technique, beautiful voice and an ability to sing as if the music and words are being made up as the musicians go along. Wilson and Dougherty Ross aced it with a seemingly easy, jazzy inflection that set just the right mood for the afternoon.

Next on this eclectic menu of riches was the gorgeous “Erbarme dich” from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”
Yost Olson was the pianist for this work; Wilson and Zarzycka joined her. The sound from everyone was beautiful and compassionate, as Bach meant it to be, but the work was written for a mezzo, and, in the voice of a lyric soprano, no matter how good she may be, it lost the warmth and depth it needs.

It’s lovely to program a work because you love it, and the love certainly was shining through the performance. But, because of the lightness of Wilson’s voice, she (rightfully) needed to take the piece faster than it’s meant to be heard, and that meant the instruments simply didn’t match the weight of the words.

Just the opposite happened when Wilson and Yost Olson presented Schumann’s “Widmung,” one of the classics of the Lieder repertoire. It was absolute perfection, musically, vocally and emotionally. Elly Ameling couldn’t have done it better.

Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” althought Wilson and Yost Olson performed it beautifully, lacked an integrated interpretation, with the pianist sounding rather matter-of-fact and the soprano imbuing the music and words with the great understanding and drama that’s needed. This is easy to fix; talk about it, and settle on one version.

Midway through the program, the performers switched gears for instrumental chamber music: the exquisite “Meditation” from Massenet’s “Thais” and a fun, jazzy work by John Williams, “Por una Cabeza,” which was used in the film “Scent of a Woman.” Zarzycka has a very virtuosic, big, gutsy tone with technique to burn, and she put all her talents to good use in both pieces, always keeping in mind the style and energy of each work.

To end the afternoon, Wilson returned with Yost Olson for two French songs, the gloriously romantic “Ah, Chloris,” by Reynaldo Hahn, and “Apparition,” one of the songs from Debussy’s rarely performed “Chansons de Jeunesse.” One of the reasons that cycle is so seldom heard is that the songs are really hard to sing. The soprano nailed it. And, as if to say, “If you thought that was hard … ” she followed it by Mozart’s devilishly difficult concert aria, “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio,” which has not only coloratura that makes the “Queen of the Night” sound like a simple song, but leaps of way more than an octave that Mozart must of written with great glee, knowing sopranos for centuries to come would blanch at the thought of them. The result? Exquisite and dazzling.

Finally, the soprano — who is also a great speaker, charming and knows when to stop talking and start singing — tossed off Musetta’s aria from Puccini’s “La Boheme.” With Dougherty Ross back at the piano, the two simply won over the audience with their charisma and musical ability.

Look for Wilson, and, when you find her, get tickets. She’s terrific.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks III

January 13th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 11, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Every now and then we attend a concert that, like a perfect storm, all comes together to make perfectly glorious music. That happened this past weekend when the Sarasota Orchestra and Music Director Anu Tali offered a program of particularly disparate works by extremely contrasting composers and came out with a confluence of sounds that made us weep.

Richard Strauss’ intense “Death and Transfiguration” is rarely, if ever, heard as a curtain opener but Tali used it well, carefully building colors and textures in her orchestra so the musicians produced an organ-like sound with a depth of understanding that comes from both the heart and technical prowess. The opening of this work isn’t easy to understand. One friend said, “You have to be older to appreciate that opening,” and that made me realize why the first themes made me so uncomfortable: they deal with the concept of death and the fear of dying. But the transfiguration that comes after that is so uplifting, so spiritual, it’s hard not to believe things get better. With its “Superman” sound-alike theme, when played well, it’s almost impossible not to soar with it and the Sarasota Orchestra, sounding like a giant organ with shimmer and depth, spun legatos that seemed to go on forever.

One of the most important marks of a great orchestra is its ability to switch styles seamlessly. In this concert, the Sarasota Orchestra and Tali moved from century to century as if they were born to each one. From the passionate complexity of Richard Strauss, they moved with ease to the clarity and precision of Mozart.

Replacing the flugelhorn player, Sergei Nakariakov, who was unable to perform due to illness, the Orchestra was able to bring in the internationally renowned pianist Tamara Stefanovich, who has performed at festivals from Aldeburgh to Lucerne and worked with such renowned conductors as Pierre Boulez. Because the theme of this program was “In Love,” the fitting concerto was Mozart’s C Major, No. 21, K.467, often known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto because its slow movement was used in that film.

From the very opening notes we heard a clean, incisive orchestra providing the framework for Stefanovich, whose stylistic, clear and sensitive playing seemed a perfect match to the orchestral instrumentalists. It was a classic performance of a classic, with Tali using that long legato to make the orchestra and soloist sound like one organism. Even the pizzicato strings had long, singing lines. And the transitions between themes and those all-important silences were always perfect.

Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Fantasy Overture used to be played often in concert halls and on the radio, but it seems to have gone out of fashion over the last few decades. Perhaps it was too romantic for the late 1900s. We certainly can’t remember the last time we heard it at a live performance, so it was like welcoming back an old friend who’d stayed away too long. Tali built a beautiful tension throughout the piece, giving the horns, brass and percussion their head to build great fortissimos but always keeping them from becoming blatty and brash. Again, the transitions were flawless with a sort of mystical sound linking the majestic, romantic segments.

Finally, the orchestra opened those first magic notes from the Suite No. 2 of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe.” With washes of sound and color that made me feel like I’d slipped into “Green Mansions,” every musician in the orchestra turned into a soloist, showing a magnificent obsession with sound, quality and ability. This music is pure sound, pure nature, pure water. Yes, there’s a touch of Alexander Borodin’s Russia in the brass and percussion, but this piece is a vehicle for the wind section with the flute (Betsy Traba) leading us into a space that’s like a waterfall splashing into a pond.

The Sarasota Orchestra is playing with the confidence of a so-called destination orchestra, the kind of ensemble in which musicians kill to play. Anu Tali is leading the way and, forgive me the gush, we’re amazed at their prowess.

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MUSIC REVIEW: The Artist Series Concerts — Grieg Concert

January 11th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 11, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Edvard Grieg is to Norway what Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber are to the USA. But, even though the Norwegian composer was prolific enough to keep a festival of his music afloat, most people outside Norway are familiar with only a handful of his works: The Holberg Suite, “Peer Gynt,” some of his “Lyric Pieces” and, of course, the Grieg Piano Concerto.

In Norway, Grieg is a musical hero, worshipped by musicians from Bergen and Oslo to Trondheim. His musical image and imagination have spread far beyond the borders of his native land but his countrymen want his music — all of his music — to be better known around the world and one of the best approaches they’ve found has been by way of an Edvard Grieg Festival in Florida.

The Artist Series Concerts has, with the help of the Festival’s Director Dr. Sylvia Reynolds Eckes, jumped on this Scandinavian bandwagon and brought a special series to Sarasota with lectures, concerts, visits by Norwegian dignitaries and a musical smorgasbord of Grieg’s music that is so vast, it’s become a Sarasotan’s musical feast.

But the waters of Grieg run, not only deep, but also murky.

Take the printed program of the first concert Friday, Jan. 9. Featuring more than two dozen pieces of music, with print smaller than a Norwegian elf, every musical participant announced the program would not run in the printed order. In fact, there wasn’t one selection that followed the printed page, to the point that most of us were confounded and confused, wondering what it was we were hearing.

Worse, there was no intermission included on the printed page so, when the houselights came up half way through the program, murmurs of surprise and wonder ran through the Historic Asolo.

Still, with all the confusion and musical mystification caused by the program (why bother printing it if you don’t follow it?), there were some magical moments in the evening starting with baritone Alan Dunbar and pianist Gregory Martin, performing two sets of songs with great finesse and beauty. Very Lieder-like in their sound, one couldn’t help thinking of Schubert. Dunbar, whose voice is perfect for this kind of intimate song, created great realms of color within a small canvas and, by explaining what the texts were about (they were sung in Norwegian), managed to convey their meanings through the beauty and texture of his voice.

Martin, the pianist, stayed on stage for a set of piano pieces that were startlingly as impressionistic as they were romantic. They included the familiar “Goblins’ Bridal Procession at Vossevangen.” (If I hummed it, you’d know it.)

After the uncertain intermission, a small group of singers from Gloria Musicae took the stage under the direction of Joseph Holt, for a remarkable set of choral works scored for unaccompanied women’s voices. Because of the intricate harmonies landing on unisons among the voices, this is difficult music to sing but the women of Gloria Musicae were so polished and immaculate in their pitches, the music took on a gorgeous shimmer.

They were joined by the men of GM for a glistening performance of Grieg’s “Ave Maris Stella,” followed by some psalms for mixed chorus with baritone soloist Njal Sparbo.

Even with the programmatic confusion, it was an interesting evening and we’re grateful to the Artist Series Concerts for bringing us music that we probably would never hear under any other circumstances. A little Grieg goes a long way but, in retrospect, it does open one’s ears to a new language of music-making and we’re appreciative of that.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Perlman Music Program’s Celebration Concert

January 6th, 2015Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: January 4, 2015
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

As we were fighting the crowds getting to the Sarasota Opera House for the Perlman Music Program’s Celebration Concert, I worried that, after 11 years of these performances, there might not be anything new to say. I thought, this could be same old, same old.

But music doesn’t work that way. When it’s well done it’s always fresh, always new. So, while the format was the same, the performances were full of beans, and I realized, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

As always, Toby and Itzhak Perlman started the concert by joining the nearly 40 so-called “student” (don’t let age fool you) string players in the chorus for a short program of choral music. Why do they have these brilliant violinists, violists and cellists sing? Because singing instills instrumentalists with the concept of breathing and phrasing, so important to all musicians. Remember, these young instrumentalists already have excellent, if not perfect, pitch. What they don’t necessarily have is beautiful vocal tone, the idea of breath control, a knowledge of foreign languages or an assured certain stage deportment, as important for fiddlers as singers.

Standing in front of an audience with poise and grace is an art in itself and, usually, singers — because they have to communicate not just pitches but also words, movement and audience connection — are schooled in that behavior earlier than instrumentalists. But instrumentalists need it, too. Music is all about communication, and the sooner musicians learn there’s more to it than technique, the better they’ll be as professional performers. It takes a package to be a great artist, and instrumentalists must learn the art of “singing,” just as singers must learn the art of using their voices as instruments. Enough said.

Patrick Romano, the PMP chorus master, is from Juilliard and is used to working with young voices. This year, with an “Agnus Dei” and “Dona Nobis Pacem” by Hummel, a gorgeous “Abendlied” by Rheinberger, a vibrant madrigal by Morley and the final choruses from Handel’s “Messiah,” Romano brought out immaculate pitch and excellent training from people who don’t really sing. Sure, the tone was rough. But standing in quartets, their consonants were together, vowels matched, and they made real music. In fact, the Morley was about as good as any madrigal group I’ve heard in years. And anyone who could take the finale of “Messiah” at the clip taken by Romano deserves to be given a great round of applause.

As quickly as the young instrumentalists hopped off their risers, the choral setting vanished and was replaced with orchestra chairs and stands so the string players could return for what they’re really trained to do.

This season, the PMP String Orchestra offered Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, which is scored for strings, keyboard (piano, in this case, played by the excellent John Root), flute and violin. Nicholas Johnson, who just got his master’s from Juilliard, was the flutist, and the violin solos were taken, phrase by phrase, by the individual members of the PMP violin section. You could hear the lessons they’d learned from singing because most of them breathed into their solos, an interesting followup and raison d’etre for the earlier part of the program.

Following the Bach were two movements from Verdi’s one and only String Quartet. I’ve known this work for years but liked it much more in this arrangement for string orchestra. It has more depth when played by multiple string instruments, and sections of the movements were not only operatic (think “Rigoletto”) but also echoed the more exposed sections of Verdi’s “Four Sacred Pieces,” not to mention the sheen of Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings.” Unlike the arrangement for string orchestra of, say, the Mendelssohn octet, this arrangement of the Verdi quartet worked well, and I’d love to get my hands on a recording of the whole thing in this setting. Of course, the sound that came from the Perlman group was the kind of string sound for which many a major orchestra would kill. And Perlman, himself, was no slouch in the conductor’s role; he held everything nicely together and made music rather than showpieces for individuals.

This year’s encore, or “dessert,” as Perlman put it, was a fun, enthusiastic performance of “Hoe Down,” from Copland’s “Rodeo.” And at the gala dinner following the performance we were treated not only to Perlman’s “Perl-tones” doing doo-wop but also to the whole chorus fervently flaunting the vocal version of Rossini’s Overture to “The Barber of Seville.” Watch out. These are professional string players to be reckoned with.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks II Concert

December 9th, 2014Posted by admin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MUSIC REVIEW: ‘Songs of Wars I Have Seen’

November 25th, 2014Posted by admin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 25th, 2014Posted by admin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MUSIC REVIEW: ‘South Pacific’

November 17th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 15, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

If ever there were a musical that represented what Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director of the Asolo Rep, has been striving for in the past few years in its “The American Character — Our Lives on Stage” series, it’s got to be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” Rocketing onto Broadway in 1949, just four years after the end of World War II, “South Pacific” attacks issues of America, from patriotism to racism, and it does it with a music score that took their landmark work in “Oklahoma” and “Carousel” to a new dimension.

On opening night at the Asolo, we met several people who’d never seen this classic before, and their reactions put me in mind of what it must have been like to be in the audience opening night 65 years ago when no one had yet heard the romance of “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime” and “This Nearly Was Mine,” or the hilarity and exuberance of “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “Honey Bun” and “A Wonderful Guy,” or the radical, barrier-breaking foresight of “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.”

I was 5 when I saw my first “South Pacific” starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. The most recent was at Lincoln Center about five years ago. But for sheer perfection, musically, dramatically, scenically and artistically, the Asolo wins the prize.

Kelly Felthous is the closest singing-actress to Martin’s model I’ve come across. She has a sweet innocence that gets knocked on its ear when she discovers she’s not only fallen for a Frenchman who lives on a lonely island, but that Frenchman has a checkered past, having killed a man in France, and having lived with a Polynesian (called “colored”) woman and had two children with her. All the naïveté of Felthous’ Nellie Forbush is beautifully crafted into her singing and acting, and although her unworldliness remains throughout the show, you can see her grow in understanding and integrity through the lyrics Hammerstein gave Rodgers to paint a full-blown woman of intellect.

Ben Davis is a younger Emile De Becque than we’re used to seeing, but he’s also the most sympathetic of them. It’s a little hard to grasp the love he develops for Nellie in such a short time, a love that changes his life. But because Davis is such a consummate actor with a voice that reminds us of John Raitt and Alfred Drake, we weep for him as Nellie flees his home at the thought of being involved with a man so foreign to her way of life.

The Asolo’s Bloody Mary is taken on by Loretta Ables Sayre, who’s played the role innumerable times, including the Lincoln Center production. She uses her honeyed voice as a great actor uses the tools she has to be the sarcastic, snappish, prickly person Mary is without ever losing the ability to charm those around her like a hypnotist with exotic powers.

And Anthony Festa’s sweet, sincere tenor is perfect for his honest, uncontrived portrayal of Lt. Joe Cable.

Brad Haak, with permission from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, orchestrated and arranged the music for this production so that fewer than 10 musicians were needed for this enormous score and, for the most part, he did a fine job. We missed the blare of the brass but not as much as we thought we would. The Overture, so intrinsic to the play, itself, lost a little when some of the music was cut and the harmonies inexplicably changed. But he did a fine job with all the underscoring (music played under dialogue) Rodgers wrote for this music-drama.

Music Director William Waldrop kept his small forces in check throughout, making the most of the winds and percussion so they were, properly, an important part of the action on stage, and being sure he always kept proper pace with the conversations on stage, as if music and talk were perfectly choreographed. Some tempos were definitely different from those we’ve heard in the past — “This Nearly Was Mine” was so slow it took nearly twice the time (and breath) it originally took — but they worked for the production and may have set a new standard for future singers.

“South Pacific” is such a magnificently constructed piece of music theater, it’s impossible to separate the music from the play; the acting from the singing. And the Asolo production, with its magnificent staging and music-making, enriches and fortifies “The American Character” with the spirit Rodgers and Hammerstein intended 65 years ago. What a great anniversary gift.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks I: All Russian Program

November 13th, 2014Posted by admin

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Originally published in The Observer
Date: November 9, 2014
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

The stars were shining brightly this past Sunday afternoon when Anu Tali led the Sarasota Orchestra in a blockbuster of an all-Russian program that was enough to outshine Sirius, seriously. Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Mussorgsky are great Eastern stars themselves. Put them together with Tali, prize-winning pianist Alexander Toradze and the dazzling musicians of the Sarasota Orchestra in a program seemingly designed to show off the ensemble’s stellar players, and you have enough dazzle to light up the musical skies.

In Shostakovich’s suite from his film score, “The Gadfly,” the warmth and silvery sound of the strings, especially in the gorgeous, well-known “Romance,” with concertmaster Daniel Jordan’s beautiful solo, was moving and exhilarating. Sounding like a Russian John Williams (who may well have emulated Shostakovich in some of his works), “The Gadfly” uses colors from muted to scorching, with the militaristic sound of Russian soldiers’ boots tramping across the Steppes like sure-footed avengers. Yet Tali brought out the sensitivity of the composer’s romantic side, too, making this a beautifully sculpted performance.

Toradze, who’s known Tali for many years from their studies and work in St. Petersburg (Russia) but hasn’t, until this weekend, performed with her, is an all-body, muscular pianist of the Russian Bear tradition. Yet he never bangs or uses his strength and emotional zest to show off. His performance Sunday of the exuberant Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 was thrilling. Tali and the Orchestra supported his vigorous performance, while never underestimating the composer’s penchant for sudden mood, color and tempo changes, and knitted the transitions together seamlessly. This is a brash, bold work that takes strength from everyone concerned; a blockbuster that’s both exhausting and exhilarating, and the fact that Toradze has recorded it and Prokofiev’s other four piano concertos, with no one less than Valery Gergiev, made the piece feel very much at home in all hands.

One of the interesting things about this particular concerto is its resemblance to Poulenc’s music for orchestra and piano(s). Or, maybe it’s the other way around. But no matter how you look at it or hear it, Prokofiev and Poulenc share a certain insouciance, a humor that’s very, very French. Poulenc’s is more tongue-in-cheek, while Prokofiev’s is mocking and sardonic. But the wit is there, and Toradze’s mastery of the style combined with Tali’s musical understanding and the Orchestra’s prowess made this an extraordinary performance.

Toradze, whom  audience and orchestra members alike deservedly cheered, gave us a gift of two brief but impeccably played encores by Prokofiev: an excerpt from “Vision Fugitive” (which he called “The Clock” because of its ticking qualities) and the wild finale of the composer’s Sonata No. 7. He immediately handed the flowers brought to him onstage to violinist Jennifer Best Takeda, who looked both pleased and nonplussed.

The concert concluded with a star-studded portrait of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Originally written for piano, it was Ravel’s orchestration that brought it into the popular spotlight. Interestingly, Tali decided to go back to the original piano score and, in doing so, kept Ravel’s insightful colors but also dug deeply into the music to make this performance purer and more transparent than many we’ve heard in the past.

One of the many stars of this “Pictures” was a gigantic bell — weighing in at a hefty 500 pounds — and brought to Sarasota on loan from the Dallas Symphony, specially for this resounding concert. And resound it did. One musician joked she thought it was the Liberty Bell without the crack, but, when principal percussionist George Nickson struck it with his mighty clapper, we thought heaven’s gates had opened. And our ears are still ringing.

Yellow flowers were brought to conductor Anu Tali, who, with a twinkle in her eye, added her bouquet, again, to Takeda’s growing collection. But, there was more. Tali gave us a Russian encore, “Winter Roads,” from Georgy Sviridov’s “The Snowstorm.” It swirled like a scene from “Anna Karenina” but ended happily with an entrancing flourish on the celeste, which the Orchestra’s pianist, Jonathan Spivey, deftly played.

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MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Opera — Opening of Fall Season (‘Pagliacci’)

November 2nd, 2014Posted by admin

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

It was Halloween. The wind was howling, and strange creatures were prowling Sarasota’s downtown streets. But inside the Sarasota Opera House, a triumphant cast of singers and instrumentalists were recreating Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s 122 year old classic, “Pagliacci.” No matter what kind of costumes the Halloween revelers chose to wear, none was as frightening or realistic as the tragic Commedia dell’arte scenario being reenacted on the stage of the Sarasota Opera House, because Leoncavallo knew how to turn theatrical mayhem into verismo intensity, bridging the gap between staged drama and real life tragedy.

This “Pagliacci” is a revival of an earlier Sarasota Opera production. We’d seen it before but this was revitalized. In fact, it was one of the best productions of this classic we’ve seen because all the important facets came together: excellent singing, believable acting, staging that drew us into the action, lighting (Ken Yunker), costumes (Howard Tsvi Kaplan), and scenery (David Gordon), that looked fresh and complemented each other, and an orchestra that gave support to the singers and made this an opera that coalesced into what opera should be.

It was the Sarasota Orchestra, moonlighting with the Opera, that lent its super sound to what was happening on stage. And it was Sarasota Opera Artistic Director, Victor deRenzi, who held it all together, keeping the proper balance between principals and chorus on stage and players in the pit, like a well-oiled machine.

Stage director, Stephanie Sundine managed, through little details that made all the difference, to turn a hard-to-believe 19th century verismo Italian opera into a piece of drama that could easily happen today. Jealousies, misrepresentations, deceptions and deceits are timeless and, when they’re set to passionate music, they became alive in Sundine’s very able and imaginative operatic concept.

The music, itself, is timeless and well-known. There are few people who haven’t heard Pagliaccio’s famous aria, “Vesti la giubba,” as the actor, in clown’s white face sings about the horror of trying to make people laugh while he’s crying, inside. Michael Robert Hendrick, took on the tragic role of Canio, the head of the traveling company of actors, whose real-life sufferings are mirrored by Pagliaccio, the cuckolded character he plays on stage. You’ll remember him as the brilliant acting-singer whose portrayal of Lennie in the operatic setting of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” at Sarasota Opera a few years ago, brought us all to tears. This time, he brought a depth of character seldom seen in this role. Rather than riding on the gleaming quality of his voice, as most tenors do in “Pagliacci,” Hendrick added his profound ability to embody a role, making his Canio more than just a striking voice. Yes, he was often a little too on top of the pitch but we assume his sharp intonation was due to opening night excitement and these ears will take sharp over flat, anytime.

Veronica Mitina’s Nedda, Canio’s wife who cheats on him on stage and off, was beautifully rendered, not only in her big aria, “Qual fiamma” but, especially in her on-stage musical and dramatic relationships with her on and off-stage lovers. Hers is a big, sometimes metallic voice and there were times we wanted more float and nuance in her singing but the fact that she, like Hendrick, embodied her role made her persona colorful enough that we figured the nuances would come with future performances.

We’ve never heard Marco Nistico, the evening’s Tonio, sound better. His opening Prologue was resounding. And later, as he became the hunchback, Taddeo in the play-within-the play, his evil image matched his resilient, resonant voice.

Nathan Munson, the studio artist who took on the roles of the actor Peppe (aka Beppe in other productions but then, what’s in a name…) and Arlecchino in the play, made my ears stand up with his first line. He may be a studio artist this year but he’s a tenor to listen for in the future. That is a voice to reckon with.

And Brian James Myer, a young baritone from Las Vegas, also making his Sarasota Opera debut, handled his part as Silvio, Nedda’s real-life lover, with both voice and character to make him stand out in the crowd. The chorus was trained and blended to perfection by Roger Bingaman, with just enough stage business to make us believe they were villagers, anticipating a fun day at the theater that was turned, inexplicably, into mayhem and murder.

On another note: Instead of pairing “Pagliacci” with “Cavalleria Rusticana,” as most companies do, Sarasota Opera decided to offer only the Leoncavallo but, to round-out the abbreviated evening and give a nod to Mascagni, the Orchestra and deRenzi had some stunning moments of their own in the spotlight with the Intermezzos from the composer’s “L’amico Fritz” and “Cavalleria rusticana.” A nice touch and a great way to highlight the instrumentalists.

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