The end of the festival paid tribute to Paul Wolfe and Robert Levin.
This weekend was one of celebration and tribute for two musicians who’ve left their indelible marks on the Sarasota music scene. It began Thursday afternoon in Holley Hall with a 90th-birthday tribute to Paul Wolfe, conductor laureate of the Sarasota Orchestra and co-founder and artistic director, for 42 years, of the Sarasota Music Festival.
It doesn’t matter that Paul’s real birthday was May 8th. When you turn 90, you’re entitled to at least a full year of celebrations.
The program, put together with the assistance of Maestro Wolfe, was a well-rounded, fun one, opening with the Duo Number 1 in C, attributed to Beethoven, and played with humor and grace by clarinetist Charles Neidich and bassoonist Nancy Goeres. The duo had been students together at the SMF a while ago (they never did admit exactly when), and they haven’t lost their grasp on the joy of chamber music. One of the keys on Neidich’s instrument (a clarinet in C), was sticky, so between movements, he borrowed a dollar bill from an audience member and unstuck the glop. That’s the kind of thing that brings a sold-out audience onto the stage and makes a performance memorable — along with the great playing, of course. (Yes, Charlie returned the dollar.)
Oboist Stephen Tayler, violinist Charles Wetherbee, violist Robert Vernon and cellist Brinton Smith were up next with a rich and sonorous performance of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F, K.370. Why an oboe quartet? Because Paul Wolfe, when he wasn’t conducting or playing the violin, played the oboe. In fact, he played it in Leon Barzin’s orchestra back in 1951.
Schubert’s brilliant Quartettsatz came next with Wetherbee, James Buswell, Vernon and Smith, followed by one of those indecipherable works that came from the 1970s but wasn’t finished for about 20 years and sounds that way. The composer, Gyorgy Kurtag, wrote several homages to such disparate people as Tchaikovsky and Nancy Sinatra. This one, an Hommage to Robert Schumann made it pretty difficult to hear any familiar snippets, but it was played with verve by Neidich, violist Charles Galante and pianist Jean Schneider.
The tribute to Paul Wolfe concluded perfectly with an Hommage to the maestro himself by Robert Levin, who told the audience it was a “silly piece.” Silly or not, it was fun and clever, with Levin making the snippets he used from other works, from gypsy themes and Straussian waltzes to a smidgen of Mozart, into a wondrous pastiche of a portrait, using the spellings of the names of Paul and his wife Doris, “sideways, upside-down and inside out.” Bach would have loved it.
Saturday night’s concert in the Opera House was a tribute to Levin, who will be leaving his position as artistic director of the Sarasota Music Festival, after 10 years. Do not panic! Levin isn’t leaving us. He’s just putting aside the formal title but, as was announced at the concert, he’s already chosen his time to teach and give classes at the 2017 SMF.
The wonderful conductor Nicholas McGegan led the Festival Orchestra, which featured this seasons' enormously talented students, and he opened the evening with Vivaldi’s F Major Concerto — a great choice since it gives both section leaders and sections an opportunity to strut their stuff. And strut they did, from the winds (who stood, stylishly, for the occasion) to the continuo to concertmaster Charles Wetherbee. McGegan is a great, internationally known conductor, but one of his greatest attributes is his knowledge of musical style. Imagine being a student and learning from such a master.
McGegan’s mastery also came through in a spectacular reading of Schubert’s Symphony Number 6. Known as “the other C Major Symphony,” the more well-known one being dubbed “The Great,” this one is shorter and smaller but pretty great in itself. McGegan is small in stature and he doesn't use a baton. He uses his entire body to get his passion and joy in music across to the musicians and audience. But his movements never get in the way of the music.
Finally, Robert Levin, the star of the evening, came on stage for a magnificent performance of Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto, Number 24, K.491. Levin is such a Mozart scholar, some have said he channels the composer, and that seemed to be just what happened as he played. Playing along with the orchestra, improvising what Mozart hadn’t written, he knew every cue, every instrument in the score and was able to embellish, presumably the way the composer did as he performed.
If that weren’t quite enough, Levin, in honor of the occasion, played an encore: the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata, K.330. He didn’t announce it. That would have broken the mood, and I’m not sure Levin’s voice wouldn’t have broken if he’d spoken. I think that movement is in F and starts with three consecutive C’s. But then, a rose by any other name smells as sweet. And this was quite a sweet night for a great musician.