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Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks 7: 'Legends'

Sarasota Orchestra closes its season with a legendary performance.

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  • | 6:45 p.m. April 3, 2016
Antti Siirala. Courtesy image.
Antti Siirala. Courtesy image.
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The Sarasota Orchestra called its Masterworks 7 concert, “Legends” and it was, indeed, legendary. With the entire second half devoted to the Legends of the “Lemminkäinen” Suite by Jean Sibelius, we took a trip through the dark, glacial, arctic myth of Lemminkäinen, a sort of Finnish version of Richard Strauss’ Til Eulenspiegel, without his merry pranks.

The best known of the four sections of this suite is the majestic “Swan of Tuonela,” played here with stately elegance by the solo English horn and principal cello, allowing us to reach into the silent song of the dying swan as thunderous ice floes threaten to break loose  in the percussion.

In fact, the entire work is a romantic but frozen foreboding of death and tragedy but Sibelius, with his icy instrumentation, manages to remind us one can cavort even through bitter circumstances, especially if you’re the stuff of legends, as is our friend, Lemminkäinen. And Music Director Anu Tali drew the very best from the Sarasota Orchestra players so every note, every phrase had a meaning and place in this vast landscape of frozen woodlands. Outstanding among the outstanding players were English hornist Nicholas Arbolino and  cellist Jake Muzzy, Concertmaster Daniel Jordan, violist Steven Laraia and horn and percussion sections that were impeccable.

Antti Siirala. Courtesy image.
Antti Siirala. Courtesy image.

The program opened with the charming “Bergensiana” by the Nordic composer Johan Halvorsen. Tonal, pretty, dancing and, at times rollicking, this was a good set-up for the rest of the program, showing that the north can produce music that’s not always filled with dread and foreboding. It also showed off several sections of the orchestra because parts of the work are very exposed: dangerous territory for instrumentalists that the Sarasota Orchestra carried off without any problems.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto Number 1 followed the Halvorsen and, in the Rubinstein-like hands of Finnish soloist Antti Siirala, we were treated to a blessed dose of romanticism without schmaltz. Siirala is an insightful, incisive pianist with a crystalline sound and a technique that allows him to be expressive rather than bombastic. The slow movement was sheer magic and the duet between principal bassoonist Fernando Traba and Siirala was breathtaking.

We were treated to two encores, one following the Chopin by the pianist, and one, at the conclusion of the concert, by the entire orchestra. Siirala offered a sensitive, captivatingly legato performance of a section of Schumann’s gorgeous “Davidsbündlertänze.” And, to conclude the entire concert, Anu Tali conducted the very first work she led in Sarasota, five years ago, Sibelius’ “Finlandia.” And what a difference five years make. The Sarasota Orchestra was good when Tali first took the podium. Now they’re great. And they know it.

They played “Finlandia” with the spirit of a group like the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic. We’re good and we want to share our talent with you. This isn’t a swaggering braggadocio. It’s the kind of confidence that comes from hard work and collaboration. It also comes from great leadership and Tali has certainly provided that since she first lifted her baton in Sarasota.

Like Jean Sibelius, who ends many of his works with a resounding Amen from final plagal cadences, we can only say, Amen to the Sarasota Orchestra. As we’ve asked before: What’s next?


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