Perhaps it was conductor Grant Llewellyn’s attention to style, detail and musicianship, or, it may have been the exceptional level of talent among the musicians. And it could have been the fact the ensemble was in its third week working together. Whatever the reason, the final orchestral concert by the super-talented students of this season’s Sarasota Music Festival Saturday, June 23, at the Opera House was probably one of the finest we’ve heard.
The program opened with a pair of Debussy classics: the enchanted “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and the colorful “Première Rhapsodie,” two pieces that many a major orchestra would be hard-pressed to play as well as this student ensemble. From the small, sweet sound of the opening flute in the “Prelude,” Llewellyn paced this well-known work with slow precision, drawing a translucent, shimmer of tone from the ensemble.
Charles Neidich, the brilliant clarinetist, gave a color-filled performance of the rhapsody, weaving phrases with such fluidity, we weren’t sure if he had lungs of iron, used circular breathing or simply stole breaths in ways that never disrupted the flow of the line.
Mendelssohn’s G minor Piano Concerto is always fun to hear. Filled with buoyant melodies, hymn-like tunes and somewhat revolutionary writing combining the classicism of Mozart with the romanticism of Schumann and Brahms, it’s always a joy. In the pianistic hands of Robert Levin, with Llewellyn graciously gathering the orchestra for support, this was a jolly, fantastical, bountiful performance. Yes, the opening was somewhat manic Mendelssohn, but Levin never took it faster than he could play it, and the result was spectacular, sometimes bouncing at break-neck speed but always appropriate, elevating and beautiful.
The second half of the evening went to Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, the “London.” For this occasion, Llewellyn chose to have the orchestra stand (except the cellos, of course), something that was not only done in Haydn’s time but a practice found in many contemporary chamber ensembles from Australia to Prague. Haydn fills this work, his final symphony, with diverting, humorous twists, turns and sudden silences that are as important as the sounds. Llewellyn and crew took these dance-like melodies and grand pauses and made them vibrant, perfectly stylistic and marvelously musical.
There were also some memorable non-musical moments. We wish you’d seen the curtain call for Levin and Llewellyn after the Mendelssohn, when pianist and conductor, each trying to push the other downstage for a solo bow, wound up leading each other a merry chase around the stage. Hilarious in only the way a music festival of this rank can afford to be. And, how wonderful it was to have two towering clarinet icons such as Charles Neidich and Richard Stoltzman playing and teaching in the same festival!
This was one of the best yet. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to come back 25 or 30 years from now to see who, among this season’s students, is up there as the future’s musical icons?
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