The Sarasota Music Festival, which almost went out of business this season but was financially resuscitated, has also gotten something of a face-lift, presumably from its administration and Artistic Director Robert Levin. Rather than being a student vs. faculty proposition, as in the past, the exceptionally talented students are now on an equal footing with their mentors. They performed together, side-by-side, in chamber concerts as well as orchestral programs.
For example, this past Saturday night, members of the Sarasota Orchestra and some other festival faculty members took the stage of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall playing the outside stands, while the students sat beside them. This was a very good thing because it instilled a freshness and enthusiasm that some veterans, no matter how talented and professional, find hard to dredge up after so many years of performances.
The audience, which pretty much filled the Van Wezel (something of a feat at this time of year), had more young faces than grayheads and, although it was hardly a seasoned group (yes, they applauded between movements, tsk, tsk!), it was vibrant, and that’s more important than experience.
The program, conducted by Joseph Silverstein, opened with the festival debut of a beautifully played but unfortunately not very sensuous reading of Wagner’s “Prelude and Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde.”
This is a smoldering work that, when performed with the tension and character Wagner intended, sweeps the listeners to the nearest bedroom — and I don’t mean for a nap. All the notes and beauty of the score were there Saturday evening but it lacked that overpowering sexiness that takes it beyond Ravel’s “Bolero” into a world of unbridled passion.
The “Tarantelle,” an early work by Saint-Saens, came next, and faculty members Thomas Robertello, flute, and Eli Eban, clarinet, made short work of this wonderful bit of fun fluff. Reminiscent of the composer’s own “Danse macabre,” which actually was written some 17 years after the “Tarantelle,” the piece is very French, indeed. The soloists, orchestra and conductor showed a beautiful collaborative effort, making much of this very melodic and colorful work.
Schumann’s well-known “Konzertstück” also had its festival premiere in a rousing performance by the orchestra with faculty member (and principal horn of the Dallas Symphony) Greg Hustis, Sarasota Orchestra horn players Joe Assi and Audrey Good and Juilliard student Trevor Nuckols. This is a wonderful piece, from its opening fanfare to its insistently propulsive rhythms. Everyone stylishly performed it with zest and enthusiasm, especially Silverstein, who kept all his forces nicely knitted together.
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, also making its debut at the festival after all these years, managed to generate a Sarasota standing ovation for the orchestra, conductor and soloist Susan Starr, even though the performance didn’t entirely deserve it. For inexplicable reasons, the orchestra wasn’t tuned to the piano, which left a jarringly harsh difference in pitch between the solo and ensemble playing. In addition, there were several measures — especially in the middle and final movements — when Starr and the solo instruments in the orchestra were some distance apart in tempo.
Flaws aside, the Sarasota Music Festival is back, changed, spiffed up and considerably more exciting than it’s been in many a year.
— June LeBell