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Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks I

Sarasota Orchestra and Marc-André Hamelin give a masterful performance

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  • | 11:32 a.m. November 9, 2015
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The first Masterworks concert of the season was called “The Emperor,” after its centerpiece, Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. But that one title didn’t come close to covering the empirical intention of this performance.

Pairing Shostakovich with Beethoven is like taking two giants of music and partnering them in a seismic setting that’s sure to knock you for a loop. We knew that the moment the Orchestra began the Shostakovich “Festive Overture,” a vibrant fanfare that heralded the rest of the program. From the Olympian brass opening to the wonderfully rhythmic definition in the instrumentation, Music Director Anu Tali sculpted a distinctly clear and colorful sound.

Internationally renowned pianist Marc-André Hamelin has been garnering rave reviews in concert halls from the capitals of Europe to the major orchestras of America. He was in Sarasota before, playing a solo recital for the Sarasota Concert Association but this time we had a chance to hear him in a concerto. And not just any concert. Beethoven’s Fifth and final piano concerto, known as “The Emperor.”

Hamelin has an understated pianistic personality. To watch him at the keyboard, you might think, "No big deal."

But he has technique to burn and an innate musicality that often makes the music new and fresh. The opening movement of the Beethoven was very fast but still breathed. Unfortunately, because of the tempo, it also lacked the depth of emotion and  monolithic, vertical stature that makes Beethoven sound like Beethoven. The following movements, however, were beautifully paced. Hamelin’s pristine, effortless technique combined with the sublime accompanying of the Orchestra deftly led by Tali, made for a beautifully proportioned rendering of this masterpiece. Tali tastefully teased the transition from the slow movement into the finale in a way that allowed Hamelin’s musicianship to flower and the music to bloom.

Then we all switched gears for the Symphony Number 5 of Shostakovich. This can be a dangerous work because the strings are so exposed but the Sarasota Orchestra, in unison, sounded like one player. And that wonder continued throughout the work.

Contrasts and colors, tension, long poignant phrasing and the throbbing undercurrent of real Russian passion made this a spectacular performance of this great work. It’s a wonderful symphony filled with longing, rage, love, and sardonic humor with a palpable yearning to be free. It opens with a fury that Shostakovich, in the second movement, turns into a tipsy waltz that makes you imagine old Soviet bureaucrats, drunk on volumes of Vodka, stumbling around with great humor, never realizing the laugh’s on them. The third movement, in turn, has the composer weeping for Mother Russia. But the finale is triumphant and we know what Shostakovich could only imagine: the Wall tumbling down.

Shostakovich had a great sense of humor but he had to be careful how it was used or it could have meant his life and livelihood. Anu Tali chose an encore that showed the composer’s penchant for fun: his virtuosic arrangement of what he called “The Tahiti Trot,” aka Vincent Youman’s “Tea for Two.” Like Stravinsky’s setting of “Happy Birthday,” it’s always a surprise and always fun.

Best of all, the music at this concert had a clarity and brilliance not heard before. The reason? The Van Wezel has been tuned. Just as a great violin relies on the wood of its case and the skill of its builder, so a concert hall needs to be “tuned.” The Van Wezel has invested in a new shell that surrounds the stage, allowing the sound of the really fine Sarasota Orchestra finally to be heard. Remember, no microphones are used to amplify this type of concert and, for the first time in memory, we were able to hear the excellence of this ensemble. It doesn’t take the place of a real concert hall, built for acoustic sound, but it’s a great start.


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