Anu Tali, the Estonian conductor who took over the Sarasota Orchestra for its third Masterworks program of the season, also seems to have taken over the hearts and musical minds of this city. And with good reason.
Tali, who conducted a program of works by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius a couple of seasons ago, brought us a beautifully-shaped concert that carried with it an energy and dynamism that produced sparks in the air. She has forward propulsion in her conducting style that takes the verticality out of the music and allows the musicians to be more cohesive and fluid than I’ve heard them in the past. In fact, she turned this excellent “regional” ensemble into a first-rate band, making us think this small-town orchestra now has a big-city sound.
Shape, intellect and heart are the three words that come to mind.
The shape, or contour, of the program began with the tonal, decidedly programmatic (although the composer claims it has no story) Overture No. 2 by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. A cinematic landscape-of-a-work that reminded me of the background for a high-power spy thriller, this gorgeous (and well-written) piece has a beginning and ending filled with fire, and the middle section is filled with meltingly beautiful ice. Under Tali, the orchestra played it, not as just another overture, but as the worthy piece it is.
Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat (not “C Minor,” as listed in the program … that’s the Symphony, not the Concerto), was given more care and definition in the orchestra than it normally gets but always deserves. Soloist Joyce Yang, a young powerhouse-of-a-pianist, is not only energetic and dynamic, but she and Tali proved that although every note was there, some were more important than others. Even the rests were part of the music, making the over-all concept musical, passionate and stylistically right.
The nine sections Tali put together from two of the three Suites from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” were stunning. From the sarcasm and bite of the opening jousting between the Montagues and the Capulets to the tender, transparent innocence of Romeo and Juliet’s love scene, every note was thought out but kept within a sculpted, architectural line that always moved forward, propelled by the music and story.
The Death of Tybalt in Prokofiev’s hands is, of course, the turning point of this dramatic work. Games between the young Romeo and Tybalt that are never meant to be fatal, go horribly awry and, suddenly, the music is propelling us into Tybalt’s terrifying death throes, followed by the rending and tearing of garments by the shattered parents. It’s impossible to hear this music without shuddering. And the final death of the two lovers, as depicted by Tali and the Sarasota Orchestra, was positively devastating.
But, it’s the shape of the program we’re talking about, and Tali had a surprise for us at the end. Having led us from the bleak and icy beauty of the Tormis through the brilliant classicism of the Beethoven and the despair and agony of “Romeo and Juliet” and after receiving a thunderous ovation, she gave us redemption by leading the orchestra through one of the most transfiguring performances of “Nimrod,” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” you could imagine.
Many of the adjectives I’ve ascribed to Tali have popped up in my past reviews but this conductor gives new meaning to them all. She also gives new meaning to the search for a new music director. She has obviously won the heart of the Sarasota music community. It will be fascinating to see what happens from here on.