Just as Nik Wallenda was prepping for his breathtaking tightrope walk across Niagra Falls, the Sarasota Music Festival was wowing the audience in the Opera House with an equally exhilarating program of chamber music. The two events had more in common than you’d think. Most of the musicians at the Opera House — coming from Taiwan, Sichuan, Korea, Vancouver, Auckland and even New York City— were unaware that Wallenda’s home is Sarasota. And much of the audience — currently living here in Sarasota — was unaware that this festival is as important and internationally renowned as the ones in Tanglewood, Aspen and Marlboro.
Wallenda made it across the falls and the startlingly talented performers Friday evening gave us a night that was just as electrifying as his walk. From the opening movement of the Faure G minor piano quartet with Christoher Lim, Rebecca Reale, Danielle Wiebe and Erik Wheeler (students from New England Conservatory and Rice University), and the first movement of Schubert’s G major string quartet, featuring Stella Chen and Rainer Crosett (Harvard), Jennifer Liu (Juilliard) and Aaron Mossburg (Oberlin), to the exuberant finale of Dvorak’s D minor Serenade performed by 11 spectacular young students from Curtis, Oberlin, Juilliard, Eastman, Thornton and other major conservatories, the energizing sense of the future ran rampant through the theater.
The faculty of the festival, the backbone and muscle of this annual international teaching and performing event, did itself proud, too. Janacek’s “Mladi” (“Youth”), although not quite death-defying, is as much of a spine-tingler as a walk across Niagra Falls with the composer’s jeering, cursing, spitting, wagging and razzing, giving the flute (Carol Wincenc), oboe (Allan Vogel), clarinet (Richard Stoltzman), bass clarinet (Ben Chen — a student at the Cleveland Institute), bassoon (Richard Svoboda) and horn (Gregory Hustis) a workout, even with their world-class status as eminent musicians.
Students Vincent Meklis (Thornton School of Music) and Mark Baekbum Yee (Manhattan School of Music) joined distinguished faculty members pianist Susan Starr and violist Barbara Westphal for a balanced but occasionally heavy-handed account of Schubert’s Adagio and Rondo Concertante in F.
It’s hard to find a high point in a program of prominent music played by celebrated musicians, who seemed to reach higher with every work. But, for me, the pinnacle was seeing Artistic Director Robert Levin basking in the glory of his students’ and faculty’s accomplishments from a rear box in the theater through most of the evening and then leaving the comfort of his box seat to reappear seconds later on a Steinway piano bench for a simply spectacular performance of Schumann’s beloved E-flat major piano quintet with colleagues Alexander Kerr, Pamela Frank, Barbara Westphal and Ronald Leonard. Certainly one of my favorite works in the chamber lexicon, this performance was beautifully transparent, well thought out and, in a word, ravishing.
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