How can the Sarasota Music Festival be 50 years old? In 1964, my parents were snowbirds, contemplating a move to Sarasota and, being avid chamber music listeners, they were thrilled that the city they were planning to live in, after being life-long upper west siders in Manhattan, N.Y., was going to offer an important chamber festival.
Under Paul Wolfe's leadership and, more recently, Robert Levin's tutelage, the Sarasota Music Festival has become one of the leading teaching festivals in the world. For three weeks every spring, the best of the best instrumentalists stream to Sarasota to learn from a faculty that represents some of the finest chamber musicians and soloists in the world and to play chamber and orchestral concerts with them, side-by-side.
This may make for excellent listening as far as audiences are concerned. But, the festival has also produced a bevy of alumni who have taken their work in Sarasota to major posts in the Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta symphonies and the Berlin Philharmonic. They've come from all over the world and, in turn, spread the word about Sarasota's culture to the rest of the world. And some of them have been chosen to play principal roles in the Sarasota Orchestra.
In honor of the festival's 50th anniversary, Levin brought six recent alumni to Sarasota for a special concert a couple of weeks ago in Holley Hall. Russian-born pianist Asiya Korepanova, an SMF alumna from 2011, and gold-medal recipient of the 2012 Wideman International Competition, opened the festivities with a well-sculpted performance of Rachmaninov's Prelude in D flat. She later reappeared in a segment from Bartok's "Contrasts," with violinist Elena Urioste (who is an alum from 2005 and 2006, and has been featured on the cover of Symphony magazine) and the mesmerizing clarinetist Moran Katz (who was with the festival in 2004 and 2005, and is a recent winner of the prestigious Ima Hogg Competition).
Katz also offered a scintillating performance of Piazzolla's "Oblivion" and Ravel's beautiful vocalise, "Piece en forme de Habanera," with great finesse and a wonderful range of colors. And Urioste was also heard in Hubay's "Fantaisie Brilliant," a wild-ride-of-an-arrangement of Bizet's "Carmen."
Brahms was represented by the gypsy movement ("Rondo alla Zingarese"), from his G minor Piano Quartet, Opus 25, with Urioste, Korepanova, violist Elizabeth Beilman (who was with the festival in 2007, was the 2013 winner of the President's Prize of the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition and is the new principal violist of the Sarasota Orchestra) and cellist Mark Yee (a 2012 alumnus and winner of the Cleveland Institute's Concerto Competition).
Pianist Ya-Fei Chuang, who was with the SMF in 1993 and has since become a major soloist and is a chamber musician and wife of Levin, presented a rousing and clean performance of Ravel's "La Valse," in her own arrangement. And, for a grand finale, Levin joined Chuang for exceptionally thoughtful and exciting readings of three dances for piano four-hands: Brahms' Hungarian Dances 1 and 2, and Dvorak's Slavonic Dance in E minor, Opus 72, No. 2.
Before the concert, Levin pointed out that every major orchestra in the U.S. is "populated with alumni" from the SMF. It was exciting to see the names of some of these musicians on a beautifully presented PowerPoint presentation (sarasotaorchestra.org/festival/students/festival-alumni) that elicited gasps of surprise from many in the audience. But there's no need to be shocked. After 50 years, it's no secret that the Sarasota Music Festival is up there with Aspen, Tanglewood, the Music Academy of the West and Spoleto Festival USA. See you at the Opera House for this season's performances, which start the first week of June.