The Sarasota Music Festival is getting old and it’s time to call in Ponce de Leon for a trip to the Fountain of Youth. Dwindling audiences, old formats and faces, and small nips and tucks won’t do the trick. Yet the answer is right in front of it: Use the youth!
Take Saturday night’s concert at the Sarasota Opera House. It was a sandwich with a delicious filling between two pieces of stale bread.
The first slice came in the form of Stravinsky’s wonderfully evocative work, “Dumbarton Oaks.” A festival premiere — better late than never — conductor Joseph Silverstein, violist James Dunham, cellist Abe Feder, bassist Fred Bretschger and hornist Gregory Hustis made up the basis of the faculty chairs. (It was wonderful to see some youthful faculty members this year!) The rest of the ensemble was made up of current students. The playing was technically terrific but the interpretation missed Stravinsky’s humor, playfulness, jauntiness and funb leading to a stodgy, humorless performance.
The other stale presentation came at the end of the evening when Silverstein (now with his violin) joined violist Barbara Westphal, cellist Desmond Hoebig and pianist John Perry for a bloodless reading of Brahms’ magnificent A Major Piano Quartet. Wrong notes abounded and the anemic performance missed the Brahmsian passion that is the composer’s hallmark. (It did, however, inspire one young couple toward the back of the house to spend the last two movements making out, something one doesn’t see too often at the opera house … )
But the filling, the middle piece of the evening, was worth everything. One doesn’t get to hear the Bloch “Concerto Grosso” in D Minor often, yet it should be a staple of the chamber repertoire. Performed without a conductor by staff members Martin Chalifour (violin), James Dunham (viola) Ronald Leonard (cello) bassist Bretschger and pianist Jean Schneider with a sizable student string orchestra, this was the highlight of the evening. Bloch takes us on a travelogue of folk songs and reels from the British Isles to the Middle East (perhaps the polyglot he encountered while in the United States) for a work that’s a melodic song underscored by rich harmonies and polytonalities that always resolve into beautiful major chords that seem to welcome us home.
Chalifour, without making a big deal out of it, led the ensemble by subtle body language and, while the work could probably have benefited from an actual conductor, it was more of what this festival should be about than what we’re getting.
Perhaps we should leave the faculty to teach and the students to play, bringing in — on occasion — a master musician as a soloist. Perhaps it’s time to incorporate more talk into these performances, and the use of cameras and even — heavens! — chamber vocal ensembles or soloists in vocal chamber music.
Perhaps we should have more fun at these concerts. Take a page from The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Spoleto festivals, Aspen and Tanglewood. These aren’t gimmicks. They’re fresh air.
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