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Arts and Entertainment Monday, Dec. 9, 2019 8 months ago

'Roman Festivals' takes audience on whirlwind Italian getaway

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Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta deftly leads Sarasota Orchestra in Masterworks program
by: Edward Alley Contributor

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, along comes JoAnn Falletta to galvanize the Sarasota Orchestra and its audience to new heights in a masterful, musical journey through Elgar’s and Ottorino Respighi’s Italy, that left everyone breathless and cheering.

Falletta, the second of this season’s guest conductors, deserves every one of her many accolades and honors, as she deftly handled the hugely complicated and sometimes convoluted orchestrations of the evening. She has a razor-sharp baton technique, great eye contact and wonderful empathy with her players. She had them playing at the best of their abilities while always under control and within the framework of her interpretation.

Elgar’s “In the South (Alassio),” is the most atypical of his works, bursting with Italian warmth, and more in the expressive late-romantic style of Richard Strauss than in Elgar’s other and more staid compositions. Opening with a great swoosh of sound and melody, it sounded as if we were in for Chapter Two of Strauss’ “Don Juan,” which opened Masterworks 1 a few weeks ago.

Contrasting sections of drama and lyric repose gave every orchestral section and principal soloist a chance to shine, as the composer portrayed the colorful past and somewhat stormy present in that small area of the Italian Riviera. Principal violist Rachel Halvorson’s solo was exquisite, as were all the solos throughout the orchestra.

Violin soloist Alexi Kenney gave a most romantic and elegant interpretation of Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor. With a solid technique, rather grand gestures and ample rubato, he provided one of the most sensitive and musical performances of this concerto that I’ve yet heard. His Sunday encore was a moving rendition of the Largo from Bach’s C Major Violin Sonata.

Guest conductor JoAnne Falletta led the Sarasota Orchestra through a vigorous "Roman Festivals" program. (Courtesy)

After intermission we were treated to two of the kaleidoscopic works of Respighi, his “Fountains of Rome” and “Roman Festivals.” His writing combines all the best orchestral colors of Rimsky-Korsakoff (with whom he studied), Debussy, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky and probably others, into what I find are the best possible examples of “paintings in sound.” The play of the waters in the fountains, the approaching of Neptune’s vast entourage and the wonderful setting of twilight and evening evoke such images that we are literally transported to this world he has created.

The same is true — and even stronger — in “Roman Festivals,” where the sound of trumpets from the rear of the theater signal the entrance of gladiators into the great Roman Coliseum, leading to the martyrdom of the Christians, processionals of pilgrims to the Vatican, ending with the great feast of Epiphany in Piazza Navona, literally transport us to that great Italian city with an increasing swarm of sound.

The entire concert program, a virtual paean to late Romanticism, is a series of complicated writing and orchestration, demanding the absolute best in performance from every player on the stage, and presenting the conductor with an even greater task in interpretation and orchestral coordination. Under the expert direction of Falletta, the musicians of the Sarasota Orchestra virtually sailed through the program as if they had been doing it always. Principal soloists in every section were outstanding, particularly principal hornist Joshua Horne, English Hornist Nicholas Arbolino, associate concertmaster Christopher Takeda and others, in truth, too numerous to mention.

It was really an unforgettable series, this week with conductor JoAnn Falletta.

And so it just gets better and better. What a wonderful season for the orchestra and even more so for those of us who are privileged to hear this great ensemble.

Now if we only had a proper concert hall to enjoy it even more.

Edward Alley is a conductor, former manager of the NY Philharmonic, associate director of the Juilliard Opera Center and director of the MBRockefeller Fund for Music. He succeeds his wife, the late June LeBell, as producer/host of SILL’s Music Mondays.

See All Articles by Edward

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