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'Mozart and More' brings finesse to the Sarasota Orchestra

Sarasota Orchestra's second soiree of the season featured Casella, Gryc and Mozart.

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  • | 10:00 a.m. September 23, 2019
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Last Sunday was the last full day of summer, but fall was already in the air when the musicians of the Sarasota Orchestra presented their second chamber concert of the season; however, the musicians played with all the finesse and musicianship as if it were already the middle of a busy season.

This was quite an interesting concert because the “More” of the title included music of the early and later 20th century, together with vintage 18th-century Mozart.

Italian composer Alfredo Casella wrote his Serenata for five players in 1927, probably while he was briefly conductor of the Boston Pops, and it earned him a prize from the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia. This serenata was given a stellar performance by principal players from the Sarasota Orchestra: Bharat Chandra, clarinet; Fernando Traba, bassoon; Anthony Limoncelli, trumpet; Samantha Bennett, violin; and Natalie Helm, cello.

Although Casella was said to have been influenced by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, this piece constantly reminded me of the sounds of the “Pulcinella Suite” of Stravinsky, with its use of the trumpet, strident chords and angular melodies throughout. Decidedly a piece for virtuoso players, it was given a glowing performance throughout its six movements. The finale, a tarantella in whirling grand Italian style, was played to perfection.

Something completely different was the “Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Bartok” by Stephen Michael Gryc, for string quartet and oboe, commissioned in 1992 by Humbert Lucarelli, an internationally known oboe soloist. The quartet consisted of Chung-Yon Hong and Anne Chandra, violins; Matthew Pegis, viola; and Isabelle Besançon, cello, with oboist Nicholas Arbolino. Arbolino is usually heard playing second oboe or English horn in the orchestra, but this past season he has often played first oboe, again showing the strength in depth and versatility of the players throughout the orchestra. He was at his best in navigating the thorniest of passages in this set of variations, always exhibiting excellence of tone and feeling. Gryc based his work on a simple Slovakian folk tune transcribed by Bartok for piano. After an initial statement of the simple theme, the composer then challenged us to follow it through some seven or so variations of increasing complexity, only to end quietly.

The final work on the program, Mozart’s String Quintet in C Major, K.515, was written between his operas “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” yet in its musical sophistication it sounds as if it belongs to his final works and symphonies. Chord progressions and modulations seem far ahead of his other compositions and have always made us wonder where his musical genius would have traveled had he lived longer.

This quintet, beautifully performed by Daniel Jordan and Meghan Jones, violins; Rachel Halvorson and Michael McClelland, violas; and Christopher Schnell, cello, is a delight to hear and must be equally fun to perform. Mozart was also an accomplished violist and used two violas in all his string quintets. Both viola parts were given prominence throughout, especially in the Andante movement, with each in a musical dialogue with the other voices of the quintet.

The first movement had its main theme tossed among the players — first in different keys, then in altered and inverted forms — and the second movement was Mozart at his lyric best. After a rather quiet third movement Minuet, the finale absolutely sparkled, with its theme repeated and developed in a combination of rondo and sonata form. Every musician had his or her musical statements that combined to make an exciting performance, really a capstone to an afternoon of superb music making.

The full orchestra season opens Sept. 28 and 29 at the Sarasota Opera House with guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger. This concert opens the “Discover Beethoven” series, celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and featuring both his Piano Concerto No. 3 played by Drew Petersen and his monumental Symphony No. 5. Looks like a great season is upon us.


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