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Bradenton native takes center stage at Sarasota Music Festival

Graeme Sugden attended these halls as a youngster, and now he's playing them as a professional musician.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. June 11, 2022
The Sarasota Music Festival brings early career professionals and accomplished virtuosos for a slate of 14 local performances. (Photo: Daniel Perales)
The Sarasota Music Festival brings early career professionals and accomplished virtuosos for a slate of 14 local performances. (Photo: Daniel Perales)
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Graeme Sugden eagerly walked through these halls as a youngster, absorbing every bit of tutelage that he could find.

But now he's a flute fellow playing in the Sarasota Music Festival and a role model for local youngsters in his own right.

Sugden, a graduate student at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, grew up in Bradenton, and he graduated from Braden River High School. He received private instruction from Betsy Hudson Traba in his musical journey, and now she’s in the audience watching him perform. For Sugden — and for the 60 fellows selected to participate in the festival — it’s a gigantic milestone in their lives and a chance to begin contemplating their future as a professional.

“I came to this building with Sarasota Youth Orchestra for five years, and it’s very special just walking around the hallways now as an adult,” says Sugden. “I’m getting to perform in the same halls that I played in as a young musician, coming back as a completely different person and getting to see the faculty that are the staff I worked with when I was a kid.”

In some ways, he’s been preparing for this moment for all of his life. Sugden played for the Sarasota Youth Symphony and the Sarasota Youth Philharmonic during his teen years, and he graduated from a dual-enrollment program with Braden River and State College of Florida. Now, a few years later, he’s performing in a festival that’s a jewel of the summer schedule.

The Sarasota Music Festival was founded in 1965 by Paul Wolfe, and he served as its director for 42 years. Robert Levin took over the reigns from 2007 to 2016, and Jeffrey Kahane took over from there. The festival will present 14 different programs with music ranging from the Baroque period to contemporary, and it will feature virtuosos from all over the country.

Bradenton native Graeme Sugden is excited to perform so close to home at the Sarasota Music Festival. (Courtesy photo)
Bradenton native Graeme Sugden is excited to perform so close to home at the Sarasota Music Festival. (Courtesy photo)

Sugden’s college professor at IU, Thomas Robertello, will be one of 40 esteemed faculty artists from top music schools to feature in Sarasota. Sugden says that it’s an honor to learn from the faculty and to rub elbows with his fellow peers.

“It's kind of a gathering of all the different schools, with all of our faculty coming from all around the country,” he said. "We get a lot of different perspectives on the music. It's really cool in my ensemble as well because our coach is actually performing with us. Not only do we get to hear his instruction on the piece, but we get to hear his playing, his interpretation.”

Sugden will perform in a number of different performances. His first performance, on the opening night of the festival, came as a member of a wind quintet. He will also play as part of Rising Stars 2, a performance just for the fellows, on June 19.

The flutist will also be part of the third festival Friday, where he’ll play on Dixtuor by Francaix.

The cool part, for Sugden, will be that his parents will be able to be in attendance; He jokes that they already hear him practice at home, but now they’ll be able to see him perform.

Sugden has had the opportunity to study with Carol Wincenc, a professor at Juilliard, during the festival, and he practiced and performed with faculty member Peter Kolkay in the first Friday event. But Sugden says that Traba, Sarasota Orchestra’s principal flutist, has made the largest impact on his life.

She first started working with Sugden when he was in high school, and she's continued mentoring him since then. Sugden says he did not really aspire to be a professional musician until he started working with Traba, and now she gets to see his hard work pay off in person; Traba attended one of of his early master classes at the festival.

“I owe everything to Betsy,” he says. “I would not be the flutist I am today without her and she completely changed my playing for the better. She really showed me what control on the flute is like and she was the person who helped starting me build a really beautiful sound and solid technique. She really started shaping me into an employed musician.

"She is a fantastic flute player and she’s such a kind teacher. She’s always been a wonderful mentor to me.”

That's part of the magic of the festival; it's young and hungry up-and-coming musicians working with professionals who have already blazed their own trail. All of the fellows are taking the same journey from student to professional musician, and it’s inspiring for them to be able to meet each other and play together.

Music director Jeffrey Kahane (right) has served as the music director of the festival since 2016. (Photo: Daniel Perales)
Music director Jeffrey Kahane (right) has served as the music director of the festival since 2016. (Photo: Daniel Perales)

The reality for them is that they’re uncertain where their career journeys will take them. When they meet their peers, they’re meeting a mirror image; nobody can better empathize with the position they’re in than their fellow musicians.

"It's a large festival, but it's not as large as some of the other festivals where it feels like you're kind of overwhelmed,” says Sugden. “It's much more intimate. You're allowed to get to know people a little bit better. It's really great to meet people from other schools, other parts of the country. People who may study with teachers that you may know or that you have mutual friends with so it's really great to kind of start networking in that way. You never know when you're going to need to crash on someone's couch. Or if you're visiting a city and you have a friend that lives there, it's it's really wonderful.”

The festival has always been one of Sugden’s ambitions, he says, because of growing up so close to it. And he feels that it’s worth applying to even if you have to do it multiple times.

But interestingly, it wasn’t at the forefront of his mind during the application process.

Sugden, who was recently hired by the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra, said that he applied for the festival right when he was in the midst of applying to graduate schools.

The process was simple; He sent in a video rehearsal playing a Bach sonata and a Mozart concerto, in addition to other orchestral pieces, in February. A month later, when he was auditioning for the Manhattan School of Music, Sugden got the news that he was selected to perform in the festival.

That left him plenty of time to not only choose grad school, but to embark on his studies and also to prepare the base of knowledge he’d need for his festival performances.

Now, he's a graduate student, a professional musician and a festival fellow all at the same time.

“The festival is a really great introduction into the professionalism of being a musician and the rehearsal schedule and working with peers,” he says. “It’s so well organized. We had all of our assignments weeks before the festival started so we could start working on them. We knew what we were playing for our master classes and what our chamber assignments were. We were able to put it together. No one's practicing their music here. We're just rehearsing.”

Is there a performance that he’s most looking forward to?

Sugden says that it’s wonderful to be able to have time with the faculty members and to perform with them, but he’s really anticipating the final performance, when he’ll play on Dixtuor by Francaix.

“It’s a very unique ensemble,” he says of the June 24 event. “I believe it’s 10 players, and it’s kind of a wind quintet and a string quartet mixed together. It's a really beautiful piece. It’s not an instrumentation you see very often. And it's definitely an ensemble that I've never played in like that. I’m interested to see how the chamber music works in that kind of setting and how I can fit the sound of the flute into the strings and the other wind instruments.”



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