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Sarasota Music Fest celebrates 60 years by defying convention

Under Music Director Jeffrey Kahane, the festival will explore improvisation and cross musical boundaries.

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Sixty or so years ago, when Paul Wolfe co-founded the Sarasota Music Festival at New College, little did he know what his baby would grow up to become. What was once a humble one-week summer music camp with seven guest mentors has grown into one of the most important teaching festivals in the world with 40 guest faculty members playing alongside 60 fellows during a three-week period.

When Wolfe co-founded the music festival, Sarasota was still a sleepy beach town whose main claim to fame was being the winter home of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Over the years, the growing city has become a magnet for arts patrons to feast on artistic performances that include theater, ballet and opera.

For local music lovers, the three weeks of the Sarasota Music Festival, which takes place in Holley Hall and the Sarasota Opera House, are “pure heaven,” says Roseanne McCabe, who moved to Sarasota in 2000 to become executive director of the festival. For snowbirds, the classical music jamboree is a reason to stay on after season or fly back to Sarasota on weekends. 

Sarasota Music Festival co-founder Paul Wolfe conducts a performance of the festival fellows circa 1970.
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In an interview, McCabe says she was lucky to have joined while Wolfe was still running the show. “He was an extraordinary man,” she says.

Wolfe, who died in 2016, spent more than three decades as artistic director and conductor of the Florida West Coast Symphony, which rebranded in 2008 as the Sarasota Orchestra. The festival and symphony merged in 1985.

During 2023-24 season, the Sarasota Orchestra celebrated its 75th anniversary and the Sarasota Music Festival is marking its 60th year, even though historical accounts show the festival was actually founded in 1965. Anniversaries can be tricky when dealing with years and seasons.

Improv gains footing in classical music

But why let dates stand in the way of a good party? To celebrate its 60th year, Jeffrey Kahane, the music director of the Sarasota Music Festival, has come up with a daring program called “Music Unbound.” His aim is to encourage improvisation and cross musical boundaries. 

Most people associate improvisation with jazz and folk music, but it’s becoming a trend in the classical music world as well. One of its leading practitioners is Robert Levin, who was the second music director of the Sarasota Music Festival.

Kahane explains that improvisation, either composing on the fly or taking requests, was once popular in classical music. “Improvisation was once a central part of classical music,” he says. “Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven were as famous for their ability to improvise as for their ability to compose and play. So was Liszt. The list goes on.”

During his annual music festival lecture, Levin will invite the audience to submit requests, either in writing or verbally, and will improvise what Kahane calls a “fantasia.”

Jeffrey Kahane is the music director of the Sarasota Music Festival and spent 20 seasons as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
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Pretty heady stuff. No wonder McCabe says the festival has attracted a legion of “superfans.” These music lovers take advantage of the festival’s $75 pass, which allows them to attend three weeks of classes. The pass doesn’t cover the cost of formal concerts. 

She doesn’t refer to herself as a superfan, but Deborah Hamm has been attending music festival classes and concerts and volunteering since 2008, when she and her husband moved in across the street from Holley Hall. “There’s nothing like watching a master class where Jeffrey Kahane is coaching a student and you can see the immediate improvement,” she says. 

According to McCabe, the superfans understand that each festival will have performances that will be “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”

Several once-in-a-lifetime concerts appear to be in the offing due to Kahane’s embrace of what he calls other “musical languages” (don’t call them “genres’) during this year’s festival. 

From bluegrass to classical

A prime example of this cross-over phenomenon is Tessa Lark, a violinist who grew up in Kentucky and plays bluegrass fiddle. Lark is a faculty member in this year’s festival and will also perform.

The revolutionary approach that Kahane is taking with this year’s festival has got returning fellow Ellen Hayashi all jazzed up. “I’m really excited for this year,” she says. “They’re turning the traditional into unconventional.”

Hayashi is looking forward to a class called “The Global Music Collaboration,” arranged by cellist Mike Block, where musicians will have to learn everything by ear. “It’s going to be something special,” she says. 

If you live here, it might be easy to take the stellar musicians and future superstars at the Sarasota Music Festival for granted. Many locals may not be aware of the festival’s stature in the global music scene. 

Kahane doesn’t hold back when asked to describe how the Sarasota Music Festival is perceived. “This is a legendary festival,” he says. “It attracts a faculty of the greatest musicians. The list of alumni includes an incredible array of people who have gone on to careers as soloists and orchestra musicians.”

To quantify the appeal of the festival, Kahane notes that the festival gets about 500 applications for 60 slots.

Before everything moved online, applicants would audition by submitting cassette tapes, recalls McCabe, now the Sarasota Orchestra’s vice president of operations. Today, applicants upload their performances into an online portal that can be seen by faculty members wherever they happen to be in the world. 

Even with technological change, it still takes a year to plan a three-week festival, McCabe and Kahane say. “We present as many concerts during the festival as a typical orchestra does in a season — about 13 or 14,” Kahane notes.

The festival’s 60th anniversary begins with a June 2 concert featuring Kahane on harpsichord and festival alum Marianne Gedigian on flute in what is bound to be the first of many memorable concerts. 



Monica Roman Gagnier

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.

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