Jeffrey Kahane and the Festival Orchestra opened the festival with palpable energy.
If last Friday and Saturday’s sold-out concerts at the Sarasota Opera House are any indication, the Sarasota Music Festival has struck the mother lode in its appointment of Jeffrey Kahane as Music Director. He is a combination of superb musician, outstanding performer and excellent conductor — a veritable trifecta in the music world. And he speaks well.
Friday night’s concert was an adventurous risk in programming: All six of the Bach Brandenburg Concerti in one evening. But it worked, and how. Hearing all of these concerti together, one realizes the genius of Bach’s talent, adhering to the Italian concerto grosso style, while using different pairings of solo instruments. Each solo group had its own sound and style, from three oboes to three violins to no violins, to flutes and violins, to flute, oboe and trumpet, and it gave us a grand tour of all these possibilities. To me, the different sound of each of these groupings was the highlight of hearing all six concerti performed in one program.
Each featured group was a combination of faculty and students. To list them all by name would alone use up all my space, but highlights included the virtuoso horns in the first, the excellent strings in all six, the Vivaldi-like solo violin outburst in the fourth, and of course, the famous high-wire flights of the piccolo trumpet in the second, ably played by Robert Smith, substituting for Michael Dobrinski. Music Director Jeffrey Kahane conducted all from the harpsichord, with a brilliant solo himself in Concerto No. 5.
Saturday evening’s concert opened with Gabriel Fauré’s languid "Pavanne," performed with the stately elegance it deserves. It could easily be paired with the Sicilienne from his “Pelleas and Melisande” suite, for they are so alike in style and mood.
Jasmine Choi, a 2003 festival alumna, was soloist in Jacques Ibert’s feisty Flute Concerto, long neglected because of its difficulty, but she breezed through it as though it were a mere piece of fluff — which it certainly isn’t. Ibert’s Concerto is truly a virtuoso work, with the soloist playing almost nonstop throughout all three movements. Choi is a cool performer, playing with the near straight tone favored today, executing all the pyrotechnics of the first and third movements with ease, while providing lovely phrasing and sound in the lyrical second movement. Truly a brilliant performance.
How many times have you heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Probably too many to count, but the performance by the Festival Orchestra, conducted by Kahane, sounded fresher and newer than could be imagined. Beginning with “the most famous four notes in the world,” as Kahane mentioned in his introductory remarks, the performance sprang forth with a relentless momentum that was sustained throughout. Never rushed, but always insistent, the constant forward motion Kahane generated in this performance created a grand arch, which culminated in the climactic entrance of the brass with trombones in the great C major chords, which open the last movement. I have always been captured by the beautiful structure Beethoven gave this symphony, taking that four-note motif and giving it permutations throughout the movements, providing us with a wonderful example of inspired classic symphonic form.
The Festival Orchestra had only two, maybe three, rehearsals to prepare this concert, yet the results were excellent. What was most exciting to me was the increasing sense of ensemble, nuance and just plain enjoyment they were experiencing as they progressed through the four movements of the Beethoven. It was palpable.
Kahane galvanized his eager and energetic musicians throughout the evening, and their enthusiasm was transmitted to the audience, who responded with warm, enthusiastic and well deserved ovations.
With this pair of concerts, the 2017 Sarasota Music Festival has indeed created a tough act to follow. Will they do it? It’s probably best to attend the next concerts yourself and learn the answer first hand.