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Performing Art
Jon Nakamatsu
Arts and Entertainment Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014 3 years ago

MUSIC REVIEW: Sarasota Orchestra's Masterworks


The Sarasota Orchestra, under the direction of returning guest conductor Carl St. Clair, played a positively heroic program heroically this weekend that sent us careening from the Van Wezel, pulses beating, hearts throbbing and tears streaming down our faces. If that reaction sounds over the top, it’s because I’m writing this only an hour after returning home and my senses are still thrumming.

The evening began gently enough with two of Satie’s dreamy, languorous “Gymnopedie.” Debussy put his colorful orchestral stamp on these pieces, which were originally meant for piano, and the orchestra, with St. Clair, gave them a lovely, languid reading that smoothed the way for French music of a different sort, Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2.

Far from the sleepy sound of Satie, this is a powerful, passionate piece that, in the electrifying hands of Van Cliburn gold medalist Jon Nakamatsu, took flight and never came down to earth. From the driving, preludium-type opening in the piano to the cyclonic presto of the finale, this was a performance of a lifetime: driven, persuasive, musical, jocular, insightful and stunning. St. Clair was a compassionate, sensitive accompanist, who led the Sarasota Orchestra so no voice ever overpowered another, yet the important lines shone through, while the piano was able to form a partnership with the other instruments, like the best of chamber musicians.

The lilting second movement, which reminds me so much of the scherzo by Henry Litolff I have trouble telling them apart, is a dancing romp with a good-humored wink and lots of surprising rhythmic and harmonic changeups. Nakamatsu and St. Clair gave it just the right wit and sparkle to lead into a presto that burned up the keyboard.

Nakamatsu is a skilled technician whose impassioned temperament comes through his fingers without any superfluous mannerisms. The music is honored, first and foremost. But, wow, can he play. He was so persuasive in the concerto, the audience cheered for more, and he responded with a fearless and stunning performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in E-flat.

Some have said Richard Strauss wrote his tone poem, “Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”) in honor of himself. If that’s true, he must have been positively elated by the Sarasota Orchestra’s performance Friday night. Leading his forces without a score, St. Clair gave one of the most gripping, stimulating readings of this work I’ve heard.

“Heldenleben” is an organic work with an explosive climax. The score is so dense it’s dangerously close to being impenetrable if the conductor doesn’t take care to clarify its voices, but St. Clair managed to cut through its complexities and turn this jam-packed piece into a radiantly transparent work that glowed from the inside out.

Concertmaster Daniel Jordan’s solos were played with a sweet, stylistically perfect Straussian tone. The winds sounded as if they’d just stepped out of “Rosenkavalier,” and the brass players — onstage and off — were brilliant. Horn player Joseph Assi’s fluid, sensational phrasing was breathtaking. The orchestra, as an ensemble, had an elasticity of tone that enlightened the music and made this a simply extraordinary evening.

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