Le Bell Canto by June LeBell

"Baroque Bites at the Sarasota Orchestra"

Posted September 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm

by June LeBell

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Well, it hath begun. The Season, that is. I know, I know. I promised to write more about Santa Fe but, once we got home, we were swept up in all sorts of things from pavers to Pachelbel and that trip all seems like a dream from the past. So, onward to what's going on at home in Sarasota.

The Sarasota Orchestra had its very first performance of the season Thursday with various members — the Sarasota Brass Quintet, a small chamber ensemble and, finally, the Sarasota Chamber Orchestra — playing what they called "Baroque Bites" in Holley Hall.

These Bites started with the Renaissance master, Claudio Monteverdi, who was the first to bring us what we now know as Opera, and who composed with such a rich palette of harmonies (this was back in the 16th century, remember) that their likes weren't heard again until the 1900s. Talk about dissonance, non-harmonic tones and chromaticism heard in Schoenberg, Webern and even Bartok and you have only to reach back to Monteverdi to hear the birth of these blue notes. That's not even mentioning the oddly spaced rhythms of the Renaissance with its hemiolas and syncopations that we think were invented in the 20th century. Uh, uh. Take a listen to Monteverdi and you'll know exactly where all the so-called "Modernists" got their ideas.

Funny thing is, while the music of Monteverdi is kind if wild and crazy, his operas - - "L'Orfeo," to be specific — were downright static. Just take a look at the DVD of this piece and I challenge you to stay riveted — or just awake — through the full-frontal, stagnant staging of the piece. Grandiose? Yes. Gorgeous and fascinating music? You betcha. Emotionally fulfilling? I don't think so.

Anyway, the Sarasota Brass Quintet offered a Suite from "L'Orfeo" and it turned out to be considerably more interesting than the staged opera, itself.

It was wonderful hearing these excerpts in juxtaposition with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto Number 3. Coming more than a century after "L'Orfeo," this piece picks up Monteverdi's antiphonal instrumental voices which, in Bach's hands, speak with unbelievable genius — more vocal than instrumental — echoing, responding and turning phrases in ways so brilliant one wonders if they came from the pen of a human.
The 11 members of the Sarasota Orchestra with Concertmaster Dan Jordan leading the pack, were gripping in their musical conversations — weaving, dodging and dancing together in a truly eloquent reading of this wonderful work.

But the standout performance came with the larger Sarasota Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Dirk Meyer, in the 1949 version of Stravinsky's "Pulcinella Suite." What's Stravinsky doing on a Baroque program? Well, the composer took many of the old Italian songs — "Se TU m'ami" (unfortunately NOT included in this particular Suite) "Mentre l'erbetta" and several other familiar songs and arias by Pergolesi —and reset them, leaving the Baroque melodies to float atop decidedly 20th century harmonies. What a fun, brilliant piece of writing.

How wonderful it was to hear this masterpiece performed with such gracious understanding, wit and beauty. Every instrument in the ensemble was, even at this early stage in the season, in top form with spectacular solos by Jordan, flutist Betsy Traba, bassoonist Fernando Traba, hornist Joe Assi, oboist Adam De Sorgo and some brilliant trumpeting and tromboning.

Meyer, who just won first place in the prestigious American Prize in Conducting (Professional Division), did an outstanding job weaving together the various forces Stravinsky gathered. He keeps getting better and better, and how wonderful that he's now being recognized as one of the country's emerging young conductors!


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