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'Too Hot to Handel' and 'Lou Harrison at 100' offer unique evenings of music

Choral Artists of Sarasota and ensemblenewSRQ were behind two of the week's most dynamic performances.

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  • | 3:04 p.m. December 14, 2017
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There were two contrasting concerts in Sarasota recently. On Dec. 10, Choral Artists of Sarasota presented “Too Hot to Handel” and on Dec. 11, ensemblenewSRQ gave us the music of “Lou Harrison at 100.” “Too Hot to Handel” was conceived and arranged in 1993, based on Handel’s “Messiah,” and most of Lou Harrison’s works were written in the mid and later 20th century. What could they possibly have in common? Each evening provided a non-traditional approach to the music at hand.

“Too Hot…” is a gospel, blues and jazz setting of Handel’s masterpiece, using the same text, melodies and harmonies, transmogrified into an exciting evening of music that virtually rocked the walls of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Artistic Director and Conductor Joseph Holt invited the Festival Singers of Florida, the State College of Florida Concert Choir and the Chamber Choir of Manatee School for the Arts to augment the Choral Artists, who were joined by soloist Amy Jo Connors and soloists from Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. The singers were accompanied by an orchestra of strings and full jazz band of brass, saxophones and Hammond B3 organ, filling the stage and auditorium with a swinging and rocking sound.

Sarasota Orchestra musicians George Nickson and Samantha Bennett are the founders of ensemblenewSRQ, which is in its second season.
Sarasota Orchestra musicians George Nickson and Samantha Bennett are the founders of ensemblenewSRQ, which is in its second season.

The soloists were right with the style and the beat, from Nate Jacobs’ unforgettable opening of “Comfort Ye” and “Every Valley” to Amy Jo Connors’ gospel-infused “He Shall Feed His Flock,” and the chorus used every opportunity to shine forth in splendor in its own numbers, literally rocking along to the beat.

It was definitely not your father’s or grandfather’s Messiah, but the near-capacity audience clearly enjoyed every minute, especially when Holt began the second half sporting a Handel wig and robe. A big highlight of the evening was the spontaneous drum set solo of an also be-wigged George Nickson during “His Yoke is Easy.”It was a bit of percussive Baroque ornamentation and improvisation worthy of the master himself, and it brought down the house.

As Co-Artistic Director of ensemblenewSRQ, with Samantha Bennett, Nickson was also prominent in the concert of Lou Harrison’s works. Harrison (born 1917) lived, composed and taught in the San Francisco Bay area, and many of his works use just intonation rather than the equally tempered scale immortalized in Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier.” His music was also gamelan influenced, using rice bowls, tuned pipes, pans and other exotica to produce musical sounds.

Pianist Sara Cahill, a specialist in the music of Lou Harrison and avant garde music, was guest artist in this varied and intriguing program, which opened with a Nickson solo for tuned metal pipes, dedicated to Anthony Cirone. The ringing tones of these pipes provided an eerie yet comforting and lulling sound.

Harrison also experimented with tone clusters using either the pianist’s forearm or a short wooden block, both producing a kaleidoscope of sound and a definite melodic pattern. He used this technique freely in the four pieces for solo piano, which were expertly offered by Cahill.

Major work of the evening was the “Grand Duo” for violin and piano, a sprawling piece in five movements. With a bow to the grand style of 19th century duos, this work has a little bit of everything: plaintive simple melodies over murmuring piano figures, aggressive and rhythmic double stops, modal dialogues between piano and violin, and a final rousing polka which is vaguely polytonal and vaguely Gershwin. Throughout this lengthy work the listener can make full use of imagination and the worlds created by the music.

The concluding work was “Varied Trio” which was just that, with Harrison adding percussion of tuned rice bowls played with chopsticks, a vibraphone, a cymbal and those tuned pans and baking sheets. And strange though it might seem, all of these sounds, instruments and techniques added up to a most listenable evening.

Two musical events, each worlds apart, yet each was intriguing and outstanding in its own way and indicative of the vast artistic and musical delights which abound in the cultural riches of Sarasota.


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