The kids were out in full force Saturday evening, when the Sarasota Music Festival once again took up residence in the Sarasota Opera House. There were students on stage and backstage, in the aisles and in the seats. And they were all rooting each other on, cheering and hooting as if they were at a rock concert, even though they were all serious, young musicians from serious, important conservatories.
This may be the most exciting part of the 45-year-old chamber festival, because, even though this year’s programs touch on music from Albeniz and Crumb to Villa-Lobos and Wyner, not too many of the concerts have the kind of excitement that inspires new audiences.
Take Saturday’s program, for instance. Handel’s “Concerto Gross in G Minor,” played by an ensemble of students with violinists Joseph Silverstein and Timothy Lees and harpsichordist Joy Cline Phinney, began somewhat tentatively but then picked up somewhat as the tempos lifted in the second section’s fugue. Still, it was an often stiff and plodding performance that lacked the luster and zest Handel offers.
Mozart’s “Symphonie Concertante in E Flat” is a well-known work, but in this reconstruction by festival Artistic Director Robert Levin, it had even more of a spark than in its more famous incarnation. Usually heard with flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon soloists, Levin has replaced the clarinet with oboe and the performers — Thomas Robertello, Allan Vogel, William Purvis and William Winstead — played with great technical and emotional skill. It was the highlight of the evening.
After intermission, Silverstein returned — once more as violin soloist and conductor — for Vaughan Williams’ musical depiction of ornithology in motion, “The Lark Ascending.” Here, Silverstein used the concert masterly skill he used for so many years as first violinist in the Boston Symphony, and, even though he stood as the soloist, his body language sent the cues to the young players behind him. (Might the festival not use a student conductor for a work like this and the Handel? It would give him or her an insight into orchestral accompanying while freeing the soloist to concentrate on the task at hand. Just a thought.)
Finally, we heard Haydn’s “Symphony No. 91,” an elegant but rarely performed work and in its first performance at the festival. Here, for some reason, faculty violist Barbara Westphal, cellist Steven Doane and bassist Paul Ellison joined their colleague, concert master Timothy Lees, as first-chair players in the string sections. Yes, this was a charming performance of Haydn under Silverstein’s direction. But why all the faculty members in what is, after all, supposed to be a student orchestra? And a darned good one, at that!
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