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Michelle Cann joins Sarasota Orchestra for rousing 75th birthday performance

Pianist Michelle Cann performs with the Sarasota Orchestra on March 14 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Pianist Michelle Cann performs with the Sarasota Orchestra on March 14 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
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Seventy-five years ago, on March 12, 1949, a fledgling orchestra that grew to become the mighty Sarasota Orchestra gave its first public performance. One hundred years ago, Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" had its premiere in New York City and we are still enjoying it.

If this was not enough to celebrate, the Sarasota Orchestra struck gold by inviting pianist Michelle Cann to perform in its latest Masterworks concert. The measure of her talent, passion and artistry was overwhelming.

Cann, a champion of the nearly overlooked, but astonishingly talented early 20th century composer Florence Price, clearly lives and breathes Price’s Piano Concerto in D Minor. 

It was likely a first listen for most of the audience and the music was delightful, fresh and familiar. Fragments of spirituals woven into the lush harmonic fabric caught the ear, but a timeless lyricism flowed easily both from the keyboard and the orchestra under conductor Peter Oundjian. A sense of authentic and free expression exuded from the score and the soloist.

The fact that Price, being both Black and female in the U.S. in her time, had her music published and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was a miracle. Even more so when she composed music so rooted in the Black experience yet blended with the European sensibilities of Dvorak.

Both Cann’s presence and musicality was arresting and revealed an intense passion. There was poetry in the lines, particularly in the elegiac middle movement. Jubilant and joyous, the final movement revealed familiar “cakewalk” strutting and ragtime rhythms straight to the exuberant end. 

I have never heard anyone take on "Rhapsody in Blue" as Cann on the evening of March 15. She fearlessly followed her own interpretation with a pliant rubato. This performance had everything we could want, a dazzling pianist and the orchestra delivering every favorite element: the clarinet glissando, muted trumpet wa-wa and swell of strings.

It was a marvelous tour de force greeted by a roaring audience nearly as loud as the ovation after the Price concerto.

Not yet tired by her efforts, Cann returned for a Rachmaninoff encore in her own style, sharing her overflow of virtuosity.

Oundjian let the orchestra dazzle on its own, opening the concert with Rossini’s sparkling La Gazza Ladra Overture, where every note was crisp and perfectly placed.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64, laden with Russian-European high Romanticism, seemed a rather sober companion to the radiant first half of the concert. However, it gave the orchestra a chance to flex its muscles and expand to full emotional capacity. Whatever story Tchaikovsky tells through his later symphonies, it’s a Tolstoy novel.

The darker colors of the orchestra — low strings, clarinet, bassoon, low brass — brought an admirable gravity to the hand of fate in this score. Yet, the art is in the tug-of war between lighter and darker forces leading to a celebrated triumph in the end. The unforgettable horn solo we all wait to hear was beautifully delivered by Joshua Horne.

The Sarasota musicians with Oundjian performed this symphony with depth, complexity and insight into the human condition.  



Gayle Williams

Gayle Williams is a graduate of Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music in Ohio. She was the principal flute of the Venice Symphony for 17 seasons and has performed with the Florida West Coast Symphony, Sarasota Pops and Cleveland German Orchestra. Williams has been writing concert reviews since 2001, most recently at the Herald Tribune Media Group, from 2002-2023.

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