Back in 2020, Jeffrey Kahane had an idea for the Sarasota Music Festival. Kahane, who has been music director since 2016, wanted to organize the concerts in the festival around storytelling. Along with many other people, he was forced to put his idea on hold by the pandemic.
But like an exotic mushroom that grows in darkness, the theme of storytelling took on a life of its own. Three years later, it has come to fruition— with lots of hard work. The result? The 2023 Sarasota Music Festival brings together 60 student musicians and 45 faculty members from all over the country to study and perform.
"One of the most fascinating aspects of music history is that music eventually developed into a language with the capacity to tell stories and evoke images without using words," said Kahane.
A renowned conductor and pianist who has appeared with many of the world’s great orchestras, Kahane is now conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, where he spent 20 seasons as music director.
The Sarasota Music Festival, which takes place from June 5-24, features 12 different concerts, as well as coaching sessions, master classes and rehearsals. Many of the classes and rehearsals are open to audiences, giving them a behind-the-scenes view of the event.
As an example of the festival's emphasis on storytelling, Kahane points to "Pastorale," the first orchestral program of the festival. Conducted by Yaniv Dinur, the program includes Mendelssohn's incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the tale of young love that unfolds in an enchanted forest full of elves and fairies. (Dinur is one of two visiting conductors at the festival; the other is Kazem Abdullah.)
Birds, streams and storms
Pianist and festival alum Anne-Marie McDermott will perform Schumann's Piano Concerto in the "Pastorale" concert. This year marks McDermott's debut as a faculty member. "Pastorale" concludes with the Beethoven symphony that gives the concert its name, replete with the sounds of bird calls, gurgling streams and a dramatic thunderstorm, exemplifying how instruments can capture the sounds of nature.
Along with McDermott, there are several newcomers to the festival's faculty roster, including violinist Melissa White and oboist Marion Kuszyk. White will appear in the artist showcase "Romance and the City" on June 8 and in "Scenes and Seasons" the following night, when she will perform "Summer" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons.
Kuszyk, who is associate principal oboe of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will join faculty hornist Michelle Reed Baker and six fellows in Mozart's serenade for wind octet.
The serenade is part of the "Appalachian Spring" program on June 16 featuring the Aaron Copland work of the same name about a young pioneer couple just starting out in their marriage.
The concert will feature Grammy-winning Attacca Quartet and Kahane playing in one of chamber music's crown jewels — Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor. Attacca will also appear on June 15 in "Gold Standard" in a program featuring a composition by Caroline Shaw, whose works the quartet is known for.
In addition to members of Attacca, another artist guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser is Jasmine Choi, dubbed "the goddess of flute" by the Korea Times. Choi will play Dutilleux's Sonatine for Flute and Piano alongside pianist Michael Adcock in the artist showcase "Fairy Tale" on June 22.
The charms of the off season
Many of Sarasota's world renowned festivals, whether they be jazz or film, take place during the Gulf Coast arts capital's season. Not so for the Sarasota Music Festival, founded nearly 60 years ago as a one-week event by Paul Wolfe.
But Kahane doesn't see the June timing of the festival as a handicap. "We have lots of locals in the audience and there are snowbirds who come back for the festival," he says. It goes without saying that the festival's two performance venues — Holley Hall and the Sarasota Opera House — are air-conditioned. Who cares if temperatures outside are in the 80s?
Asked to define what sets the Sarasota Music Festival apart from its peers, Kahane responds without hesitation: "Intimacy." The casual, welcoming backdrop of Sarasota lends itself to increased interaction between fellows and faculty and even between audience members and artists, he says.
"There's lots of opportunity to interact between fellows and faculty that you don't necessarily have in other situations," Kahane says. "There's a wonderful atmosphere of collegiality among the faculty," all of whom are selected by Kahane himself.
Staying in touch with fellow festival fellows
Paige Stafford, a clarinetist who is a returning fellow, agrees with Kahane's assessment. Stafford notes the fact that all faculty and fellows stay at the same hotel, the Hyatt Regency, and eat breakfast and lunch together creates a fraternal environment.
"There's really a great social aspect," says Stafford, who will be entering her second year of a graduate program at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music in the fall. She made a few friends during last year's festival and has kept in touch via text and social media. "It will be fun to see whether our paths cross in the future," she says.
Last year, Stafford didn't get to perform at the same time as faculty members, but this year she will. She can't wait. Stafford will be part of the orchestra for the "Pastorale" concert and will play in chamber music performances.
"It's really inspiring to be able to hear the faculty concerts," she says. "All of the chamber groups have coaches. It helps you rehearse when you play alongside them. They lead by example."
Last year's festival marked the first time Stafford, a native of Jamestown, N.Y., visited Sarasota. Among the festival's extracurricular activities, kayaking in the bay through the Hyatt's rental service was her favorite. Other highlights were trips to Selby Botanical Gardens, Mote Aquarium and the downtown farmers' market.
"I really liked the climate and seeing the wildlife, although those little lizards scared me," says Stafford.
Not all of the fellows who participate in the Sarasota Music Festival will go on to become professional musicians, but the majority do, according to Kahane. Over the last 60 years, the program has enriched the careers of thousands of musicians.
"Every major orchestra has at least one Sarasota Music Festival among its ranks," says Kahane, who will close the festival on a high note on June 24 with the concert "Kahane Plays Beethoven."
Sarasota Music Festival Highlights
'Romance and the City' 4:30 p.m. June 8 at Holley Hall, 709 N. Tamiami Trail. Beach, Schumann, Valerie Coleman, Brahms
'Scenes and Seasons' 7:30 p.m. June 9 at Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave. Vivaldi, Janacek, Gabriela Lena Frank, Dvorak
'Pastorale' 7:30 p.m. June 10 at Sarasota Opera House. Mendelssohn, Schumann, Beethoven
'Rising Stars 1' 2:30 p.m. on June 11 at Holley Hall. Previn, Schulhoff, Beethoven, Franck and more
'Gold Standard' 4:30 p.m. June 15 at Holley Hall. Weinberg, Sato Matsui, Caroline Shaw, Ravel
'Appalachian Spring' 7:30 p.m. June 16 at Sarasota Opera House. Mozart, Copland, Brahms
'Sound Stories' 7:30 p.m. June 17 at Sarasota Opera House. Respighi, Tchaikovsky, Mozart
'Rising Stars 2' 2:30 p.m. June 18 at Holley Hall. Dvorak, Brahms, Ibert, Faure and more
'Fairy Tale' 4:30 p.m. June 22 at Holley Hall. Dutilleux, Janacek, DeFalla/Kreisler and more
'Rising Stars 3' 2:30 p.m. June 23 at Holley Hall. Fanny Mendelssohn, Brahms, Strauss, Ravel and more 'Traditions and Transformations' 7:30 p.m. June 23 at Sarasota Opera House. Debussy, Ligeti, Beethoven, Mendelssohn
'Kahane Plays Beethoven' 7:30 p.m. June 24 at Sarasota Opera House. Beethoven, Emily Cooley, Schumann
Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.