Music Review: Sarasota Orchestra: Mendelssohn and Mahler with St. Clair and Hanslip

 
 

This Sunday will go down in my personal record book as one of the most exhausting, exhaustive and exhilarating in a long time. It started with a performance by the Sarasota Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Carl St. Clair, of Mendelssohn’s E Minor Violin Concerto and Mahler’s “Titan,” Symphony No. 1 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center.

These are two blockbuster favorite pieces but, in St. Clair’s hands, they were brand new. The Mendelssohn was performed by a slip-of-a-British violinist named Chloe Hanslip. She’s 24 and has a bright, big, forward, beautiful sound. In the first movement, I was afraid she was going to be one of these young super techies who zips through the music but doesn’t breathe because her first few phrases were kind of breathless. But, as she relaxed, she leaned into the music and brought this old favorite new life with some incredibly sensitive, lovely phrasing and the kind of delicate playing that makes you sit up straight and listen.

Meanwhile, St. Clair, on his podium perch, was leaning into her, and the pair, like balletic lovers in a beautifully choreographed pas de deux, communicated the kind of music-making that inspires and lights up a piece. The andante was sensuous and tender and the finale, marked “allegretto non troppo — allegro molto vivace” suddenly became one of Mendelssohn’s famous Scherzos. Really! It could have sprung out of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but it was never frenzied or frenetic. The trick, you see, was that Hanslip handled it with such a liquid, buoyant touch it simply flew by like a pebble skipping on a pond.

And, then there was the Mahler. Putting aside a few pitch problems here and there, this was a titan of a performance. St. Clair walked a fine line between raw emotion and good taste but always stayed just within the bounds of style making. This, and I say this from my heart and my head, was the finest performance of the Mahler First I’ve ever heard. Tension, line, phrasing, beauty of sound, clarity, transparency, they were all there. In fact, he conducted this first symphony of Mahler as if it were a much later work, drawing together all the themes and those wonderful excerpts from the composer’s own “Songs of a Wayfarer,” as if he were creating them for the first time.

Best of all, he let the orchestra play — and play they did. The horns were magnificent. So were the strings. And among the great wind playing, you couldn’t help smile at the classic, classy Klezmer sound the clarinets milked from their instruments.

But that wasn’t all. Following the concert and its emotional rollercoaster, we attended one of the “Guest Conductor Dinner Soirees.” This one was held in the European-style wine cellar at Michael’s On East, and we were treated to still more music — excerpts from Mozart’s K. 387 and Dvorak’s “American” string quartets played by the Sarasota Quartet (who must have been even more exhausted and exhilarated than I was). They were surrounded by candlelight and shelves of wine. Great wine and great music. Does it get any better than that?

Well, yes. We also got to meet and speak with the conductor and soloist, two fascinating, scintillating people. Does it get better than that? I don’t think so.


Correction
In the Jan. 26 review of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Pinchas Zukerman, the review should have stated: “Still, although the orchestra’s fine musicians held the ensemble together, the Concerto was very much Zukerman’s baby, and it was an intellectually mild-mannered, rather than emotionally vibrant performance with an exceptionally slow Larghetto and a not very inspired reading throughout.”

 

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