Once the arts season gets going in Sarasota, it is truly an embarrassment of riches, with more going on than any other area of its size in the country.
That makes writing about musical happenings a tough matter of choice, especially when two or three important events are taking place the same day, and one is writing for a weekly publication.
This was especially true on a recent Saturday when the Sarasota Youth Opera, a vocal recital by John Brancy and the Sarasota Orchestra all performed on the same afternoon and evening. Masterworks 1 of the Sarasota Orchestra was covered last week, but the other two certainly merit comment, even if a bit after the fact.
The Sarasota Youth Opera is really unique in that it is the only company in the country that presents an opera performed by its young members in a completely outfitted main stage production with sets, lights, costumes and orchestra. The opera has assembled a wonderful team led by Music Director Jesse Martins, Stage Director Martha Collins and the same set, lighting, costume and makeup designers whom we all cheer during regular season productions.
This year’s production of Britten’s “The Little Sweep,” a revival from a few years back, once again provided some theatrical magic. Martins rehearsed and prepared the singers down to the last syllable, and Collins once again used her special brand of wizardry, moving and motivating some 90 young singers (ages 7-18) on and about the stage with a purpose and definite role in the stage action.
The story of a small verbally abused chimney sweep being stuck in the chimney, rescued and escaping back to his family was told in song and dialogue that was well sung, not shouted, and believably staged and performed. Three adult roles were performed by Opera Studio and Apprentice Artists.
The Sarasota Opera House was full of operagoers of all ages — families with siblings and friends, all with enough flowers for a greenhouse. Those of us who attend each year just to marvel at the outstanding accomplishments of all present.
Across town at the Historic Asolo Theater and starting barely an hour after the youth opera had ended, was one of the most outstanding voice and piano recitals I’ve heard in a long time. John Brancy, baritone, and pianist Peter Dugan are presenting their program “Armistice: The Journey Home” around the country, commemorating the centennial of the ending of World War I.
“Armistice: The Journey Home” had its first performance in Tully Hall in New York City to rave reviews and ended in a performance and filming at Washington’s Kennedy Center this past weekend. A stop in Sarasota was made possible through Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota.
Brancy and Dugan chose an eclectic group of musical material centered around the “Songs of Travel” by Vaughn Williams, seasoned and spiced by songs of Oley Speaks, Schubert, Rachmaninoff and Irving Berlin. Each song was a special vignette of thought and emotion of the tragedy of the “Great War,” combined with the bittersweet joy of its end and the soldiers’ homeward journey. Each selection provided its own brief drama, creating a mood and telling a story, enveloping the audience completely from beginning to end.
Brancy has a hearty, strong and virile baritone voice with a palette of color ranging from lullaby softness to towering rage, and Dugan is with him all the way, creating an ocean of sound supporting and sustaining the mood of the story told by the voice. Rarely have I heard such a symbiotic relationship between pianist and singer, when both are literally breathing together and making musical magic.
The evening opened with Dugan’s transcription of “Jupiter” from Holst’s “The Planets,” an event itself, and ended with a superb version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which once again brought the audience to its feet.
It was truly one of those evenings when words alone are unable to describe the experience. Let’s hope they return to Sarasota soon.