Archive for the ‘Music Reviews’ Category

Music review: Outdoor Pops

May 16th, 2017Posted by admin

Sarasota Orchestra and guests score a home run at annual outdoor concert.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: May 14, 2017
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

In a picture-perfect evening Friday, May 12, the Sarasota Orchestra, with assists from the All-Star Singers and American Idol runner-up Clark Beckham, scored not only a home run — but a grand slam with its annual concert at Ed Smith Stadium.

Why is it we all get so excited about being able to enjoy hot dogs and peanuts (and yes, Cracker Jacks) while listening to a symphony orchestra? Maybe it’s the same somewhat perverse pleasure some receive (myself included) by being able to eat popcorn at an HD performance by the MET Opera. But unlike the darkened movie theater, an outdoor concert is an event in and of itself, with casually dressed people from everywhere flocking into the sold-out audience opposite third base to enjoy an evening of popular favorites.

Popular and favorite they were, beginning with “Entrance of the Gladiators,” that wonderful march that is the soul of the circus and followed by the “Star Spangled Banner,” beautifully sung acapella by the eight voices of the All-Star Singers. This fine group from Orlando, which has performed regularly at Disney World, continued with a set consisting of selections from “Damn Yankees” and “Momma Mia,” which turned into a spontaneous clap-and-sing-along and ended with a moving arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah.”

Then, the Sarasota Orchestra, which could easily be the “best backup band” in the business, came into its own with “Orange Blossom Special”— morphing every violinist into a “fiddler” charging full speed ahead in a pretty dazzling waterfall of fine fiddling. Following were musical “Portraits of the Beatles,” a selection from John Williams’ fine score for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”and a “Marvin Hamlisch Celebration,” beautifully arranged by Henry Mancini.

The evening’s headliner was Clark Beckham, runner-up in “American Idol” in 2015. Clearly an audience favorite, his casual manner, combined with his fervent country-blues style singing, brought forth big applause and cheers, especially his performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”

For his finale, Beckham was joined by the All-Star Singers in “God Bless the USA,” which brought the audience to its feet, singing and swaying with patriotism galore.

The Sarasota Orchestra then got down to the serious business of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which has virtually said “Get ready for the fireworks,” since it was first used for that purpose in an outdoor concert, probably by the NY Philharmonic in their Park Concerts in the 1960s.

And arrive they did — aided and abetted by Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the fireworks once again stole the show with a gigantic display that ended a wonderful evening at Ed Smith Stadium.

No, the mandatory amplification of the orchestra is still not the best, but it has improved steadily over these past four years, and is only a part of the total ambience of the evening, which is the excitement of hearing a great orchestra and guest artists perform in an outdoor setting. No wonder it’s been sold out for four years and had a second concert scheduled this year. Congratulations to both the Orioles and the Sarasota Orchestra on a terrific evening.


Music review: Verdi’s ‘Requiem’

April 25th, 2017Posted by admin

Choral Artists of Sarasota offer energetic, musically sensitive performance.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: April 23, 2017
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

The Verdi Requiem and Mount Everest have something in common: each is monumental and each is “There!” I don’t know of any performer alive who has not wanted to sing, conduct, or play this great work at some time or another, and like Everest, it is not for the faint of heart. Each is packed with challenges and dangers that lie in wait for the unsuspecting or unprepared.

On Sunday afternoon at the Sarasota Opera House, the Choral Artists of Sarasota (nee Gloria Musicae), the Master Chorale of Tampa, four able soloists and the Sarasota Orchestra, all prepared and conducted by Joseph Holt, were set and ready to scale the heights of this great masterpiece.

And scale it they did, with energy to spare. These some 200 performers, onstage and in the pit, took advantage of the great karma of performing in “Verdi’s American Home,” the Sarasota Opera House, to absolutely raise the roof at least a foot or so, with both the performance and then the applause from the sold-out house.

Combining the professional singers of the Choral Artists of Sarasota with the semi-professional/community choral singers of the Master Chorale of Tampa, Joseph Holt presented a Verdi Requiem with singers with excellent pitch and diction, combined with immense musicality from all. After a somewhat tentative start, the “Introit and Kyrie” came together and one could hear these musical forces join and blend in what became a most moving performance. English text was shown above the stage so we were able to comprehend both emotion and understanding as the sections of the Requiem unfolded.

The massive “Dies Irae” or Day of Wrath landed with all the force and violence of Judgement Day in what seems to be a preview of the storm scene in the opening of Verdi’s “Otello,” written some years later, and it was reprised again in the Requiem’s final section. While in the louder passages the chorus oversang just a bit (who wouldn’t with all that drama going on), the soft passages gave us that wonderful, lovely depth of sound that can only be accomplished by a large chorus singing well.

Most all of the pitfalls for chorus in this massive work were surmounted, especially with the steady rhythm and quick tempo in the notorious double fugue of the “Sanctus,” and the final ”Libera me” where many performances have foundered in its fugal passages.

The four soloists for the occasion were Danielle Talamantes, soprano, Robyn Rocklein, mezzo-soprano, Blake Friedman, tenor, and Kerry Wilkerson, bass. Verdi certainly favored the two female voices in his Requiem, giving them most of the vocal gems, with few exceptions. Both soprano Talamantes and mezzo Rocklein were up to the task, commanding in all their solos and ensembles. Talamantes’ lovely sound soared above the orchestra in the musical climaxes, and Rocklein was quite impressive throughout. Although their blend at the beginning of the “Agnus Dei” could have been warmer, these are two fine singers. Friedman gave his best in his “Ingemisco” solo, with a slightly stretched sound, but he more than held his own in the trios and quartets. Wilkerson, more of a bass-baritone than bass, as called for by Verdi, seemed challenged by the lower range of his part, with a somewhat dry sound, but still sang with great drama.

In the pit, the full Sarasota Orchestra again showed all the quality and versatility of this fine group. Its members had just played three pops concerts in two days, then massively switched gears to play the Verdi Requiem. Joseph Holt, in his six years as Artistic Director with Gloria Musicae/Choral Artists of Sarasota, has grown musically, both as interpreter and conductor, providing us with an energetic and musically sensitive performance, in which the orchestra never over balanced the singers and coalesced into an afternoon of excellent music making. More kudos for the arts in Sarasota.


Music review: La Musica

April 17th, 2017Posted by admin

Last-minute substitutions bring pleasant surprises at La Musica.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: April 14, 2017
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

The third La Musica concert April 9 featured a last-minute substitution: a somewhat well-known Mendelssohn quintet, and for me, a welcome musical surprise from Smetana.

Violist Hsin-Yun Huang’s flights from Atlanta were cancelled, making it impossible to arrive in time for rehearsals, so the Schubert Piano Trio in E flat Major (Nocturne) was substituted for the originally programmed String Trio, Op. 797. Dedicated to the memory of the late John Hunter, long a friend of La Musica, the Nocturne is in one movement and presents us with a lovely lyrical composition. Even with the minimum rehearsal available, the performance by Claudio Cruz, violin, Derek Han, piano and Antonio Meneses, cello, was nicely nuanced and began the evening in a tranquil, lovely mood.

Mendelssohn’s String Quintet in A major featured a double substitution, with Claudio Cruz switching to viola and joining Cecilia Ziano and Frederico Agostini, violins, Bruno Giuranna, viola, and Antonio Meneses, cello. The first movement began with a few miscues, but the musicians soon settled into a good performance. A lovely elegy-like second movement was followed by a typical Mendelssohn scherzo, introduced by a quick fugal theme that scampered through all five voices like fireflies on a still night. The strong finale showed good balance and dynamic range, but the first violin was occasionally overbalanced in the soft passages. Truly Mendelssohn at his best, with his spare but effective writing and natural scoring.

For me, the big surprise of the evening was the final work, the Piano Trio in G Minor, by Smetana. No wonder it was championed by Franz Liszt, who must have had a special fondness for the piano writing, here well played by Derek Han. Even though the work was written in memory of and in tribute to Smetana’s musically talented daughter, who died an untimely death at the age of 4, this work is hardly a lament. The first movement opens with its very angular theme, stated by solo violin, soon joined by the cello in a musical dialogue that adds the piano and progresses through modulations and development to a recap of the solo violin, leading to a thrilling finale.

The second movement is a loving musical tribute to the daughter, from the springing lightness of the first theme through moments of drama and beauty, leading us to the finale, opening with a furious presto with its challenging juxtaposition of duple against triple rhythms, which suddenly stops to give forth a lovely elegiac cello solo, brilliantly played by JeongHyoun Lee with a soaringly beautiful sound. The opening theme returns and alternates with the cantabile themes, which develop and finally emerge into a deceptive, then explosive finish to an exquisite performance of this monumental work.

La Musica has been bringing outstanding chamber music to Sarasota for over 30 years now, but in many ways, the repertoire has grown a bit stagnant and predictable with some variable performances and smaller audiences. With the addition of fresher performers, such as JeongHyoun Lee and works like the Smetana Trio, La Musica could very well enjoy another 30 years of bringing chamber music to larger Sarasota audiences.


Music review: La Musica Music Festival

April 9th, 2017Posted by admin

La Musica Music Festival opens with an elegant, compelling performance.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: April 6, 2017
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

Of the several music festivals in Sarasota that feature the performance of chamber music in addition to teaching and orchestral concerts, La Musica Music Festival, which opened its 31st season last week at the Sarasota Opera House, is strictly chamber music performance. This years series of four concerts opened with youthful compositions of three well-known composers, Mendelssohn, Webern, and Richard Strauss. Yes, youthful, even though Mendelssohn was all of 30 years old when he wrote his “Piano Trio in D minor,” the opening work of the evening.

Overshadowed perhaps only by his magnificent Octet, Mendelssohn’s D minor trio is one of his most performed chamber works, here played by Federico Agostini, violin, Antonio Meneses, cello and Derek Han, piano. After a somewhat staid and tentative beginning, the performance grew bolder in the later movements, especially the typical Mendelssohn Scherzo and Finale. However, the warm sounds of both violin and cello tended to be overpowered by the piano, especially in the forte sections.

Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” for string quartet introduced us to a Webern few knew existed. Composed before he delved into the atonal 12-tone world of composition, this piece is pure unabashed romanticism, complete with languid themes and lush harmonies, beautifully performed by Claudio Cruz and Cecilia Ziano, violins, Bruno Giuranna, viola and especially JeongHyoun Lee, cello. Composed in 1904 at the age of 21 and lost for years, only to be performed in 1962, the “Langsamer Satz” must have been quite a revelation for both players and listeners when it surfaced.

Closing this opening concert was the youthful “Piano Quartet in C minor” by Richard Strauss, given a rousing performance by Claudio Cruz, violin, Bruno Giuranna, viola, JeongHyoun Lee, cello, and Derek Han, piano.

Richard Strauss completed this quartet when he was 21, three years before he wrote his career-changing “Don Juan” for full orchestra, but it already has the sweeping melodies, rich harmonies and musical exuberance featured in his later works. Even though there are homilies to Brahms, his idol of the moment, the piece is pure Strauss, through and through. The thoroughly energetic and compelling performance radiated the energy and inspiration of the young Strauss, especially in the Scherzo which had hints of “Til Eulenspiegel,” yet to appear in a few years. The lovely third movement was the precursor of an elegant Strauss song at its best, and the final Allegro Vivace allowed all to display their musical wares to the fullest.

All in all, a good opening for this venerable chamber music series, and it’s unfortunate that the audience couldn’t have been larger to enjoy this fine musical evening.


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks 7

April 4th, 2017Posted by admin

Masterworks series ends with brilliant playing by all.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: April 2, 2017
by: Edward Alley | Contributor

The Sarasota Orchestra ended its Masterworks season last Sunday with a sold-out house with guest conductor Han-Na Chang in a program guaranteed to please.

Possibly due to her extensive European engagements, Chang reseated the orchestra in a European seating, with the second violins opposite the firsts, violas to audience left and the cellos to the right, inside the violins. Many conductors prefer this as they feel it adds to the antiphonal effect of the first and second violins. Chang is slight of build and large of gesture, with a clear-cut technique that gives no doubt about what she wants from the orchestra, and she certainly achieved that in her opener, Rossini’s Overture to William Tell.

The “William Tell Overture” has acquired an after-life of its own, even beyond Rossini’s opera about the Swiss hero. It was Rossini’s last — and many say greatest — opera. From the lushness of the opening cello solo, throughout the storm, calming English horn solo and final galloping allegro, the orchestra was in top form. This is not an easy piece to play, and it was virtually tossed off as if it were a simple C Major scale, with brilliant playing from every soloist and the entire orchestra.

Bertrand Chamayou was the soloist in Mendelssohn’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” in G minor. Composed when he was 22, and despite the somber opening, it still bears a great resemblance to the overture to “Midsummer Night’s Dream” written three years earlier, with multitudes of notes challenging the technique of both soloist and orchestra. Chamayou rose to this challenge and executed them all, even though some passages seemed to run together a bit. This concerto, played without pause much as the violin concerto, has a lovely second movement that was beautifully performed by soloist, conductor and orchestra. Chamayou is an excellent pianist, and it would be a pleasure to hear him in a varied program.

Surely the highlight of the concert was the performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in A major. This symphony ranks as a favorite with audiences, players and conductors, and it is a challenge for all. This performance, while brilliantly played, seemed to be very driven in tempo without much subtlety of interpretation. Very often Chang’s tempi were so rapid that clear articulation was virtually impossible to achieve. On the other hand, the slow movement with its unrelenting ostinato figure had some lovely playing by everyone. The final two movements were taken at a roller coaster pace that left little time for the music to breathe, which it badly needed. To me, it was merely fast and not thrilling; nevertheless, the audience loved it, and the applause was long and hearty.

The Masterworks Series this season has presented us with a wide variety of repertoire, from traditional to contemporary with excellent soloists and conductors. Yet the most outstanding and inspiring part of this orchestra continues to be the players, those who devote their lives and professional skills to the art of making beautiful music for those of us who are fortunate enough to live in Sarasota.


Music review: Masterworks 6

March 21st, 2017Posted by admin

A ‘Titan’ of a program at Sarasota Orchestra’s masterworks concert.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 19, 2017
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Putting works by Bernstein, Tchaikovsky and Mahler on the same program may not make much sense when you first look at it, but when you think they’re all Titans of music, it makes all the sense in the universe. And that’s exactly what Sarasota Music Director, Anu Tali did in this past weekend’s Masterworks VI series.

Beginning with a sprightly Overture to Bernstein’s opera, “Candide,” the concert got off to a very fast start with the orchestra sounding spry and agile. Maybe a little too spry for my taste. It was one of the fastest readings of this well-known, beloved overtures, and in its straight-forward performance, it passed over some of the nuances Bernstein wrote into the score. Tali seemed to lose track of some of the melodic lines, giving us a reading that lost some of the intrinsic color and humor Bernstein wove into the work.

Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme” came next but in a very unusual setting. Originally written for cello and orchestra, this performance featured virtuoso flugelhorn player Sergei Nakariakov, not only in his transcription but also on an instrument that sported an extra valve so he could adjust to the range of the cello, keep the work in the original key and with only a few minor adjustments, come out with a mellow, cello-like warmth that made his unusual instrument into something sounding like a cross between a French horn and a trumpet.

Nakariakov is a virtuoso player, be it on flugelhorn or trumpet, and to prove the point, he followed the Tchaikovsky with an encore that delighted the audience: a set of Theme and Variations for “The Carnival of Venice” that showed off the soloist’s zippy double and triple tonguing and buttery sound. It’s actually not a big sound for a brass player, but it’s so musical and sensitive, it makes one want to listen forever.

Tali and the Orchestra were excellent accompanists throughout both works, giving support and adding color to these familiar works.

The entire second half of the program was given over to Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D, “The Titan,” in an unusual but agreeable performance. Like many conductors these days, Tali chose to drop the fifth movement, which was discarded by Mahler, himself, making this a shorter, more concise work. But, like the Tchaikovsky that preceded it, this symphony is filled with folk material, including one movement based on what we know as “Frère Jacques” in a somber, minor mode, and a few songs from Mahler’s own “Songs of a Wayfarer,” plus allusions to music by Humperdinck (“Hansel and Gretel”) and a bit of Richard Strauss here and there.

I found this a well-constructed symphonic reading that Tali tied up neatly by starting it and driving it to the conclusion with a very pastoral feeling, almost like a village awakening, yawning and stretching and finally getting down to business. For my taste, there was too much business, too much seriousness, and not enough of Mahler’s contrasts, playfulness and dancing. Mahler purposely wrote a Klezmer-like part for the clarinet but Tali chose not to go that route, showing off the contrast between Jewish and Catholic traditions. I missed it. I missed the fun, cavorting and impishness of Mahler in what, until the very end, was a very strict, precise reading of a work that usually has me going from giggles to tears in a matter of phrases.

The playing, though, was exquisite, from the offstage brass at the start to principal bassist John Miller’s “Frère Jacques” solo, then taken up by the winds and other members of the Orchestra. Harp, flute, oboe, trumpets, horns — well, the whole ensemble sounded mighty and strong. And the finale did what Mahler wanted — whisked us to Heaven as few other composers are able. It was here that Tali let loose and gave us the Mahler we know and love.


Opera review: ‘The Love of Three Kings’

March 14th, 2017Posted by admin

With ‘The Love of Three Kings,’ Sarasota Opera beautifully revives a rarity.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 12, 2017
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Italo Montemezzi, who lived well into the first half of the 20th century, can’t be considered a contemporary composer based on his work, “L’amore dei tre re,” which was completed in 1913. It’s not when it was composed but, rather, how it was written. You hear a lot of Wagner, and there are swirls of Richard Strauss, especially in the orchestra. It’s melodramatic, musically, and certainly, dramatically, but it’s neither verismo nor romantic opera. So, just what is it?

“L’amore dei tre re,” (The Love of Three Kings) was extremely popular with some of the greatest names in opera at the beginning of the 20th century. At the Met, it starred the likes of Lucrezia Bori, Rosa Ponselle and Ezio Pinza in the early days, and in 1941, Grace Moore (with the composer conducting), and eight seasons later, Dorothy Kirsten. But then it disappeared from the roster and has only been offered as a rare warhorse-of-a-piece in a few houses around the world, since.

What happened?

Montemezzi had a little competition from a few other composers who were popular at about the same time, Puccini and Verdi, among them. Being composers of the theater, they brought insight and emotional understanding to both the music and the drama, not to mention memorable arias and a style that grew in popularity. So, much like Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini,” written about the same time as Three Kings, the Montemezzi became relegated to rarity status mid-20th century. And that’s why Sarasota Opera’s production is so important.

In fact, Sarasota Opera offered it about 15 years ago, but this new, spectacularly beautiful production takes on a whole new shine. The scenery by David P. Gordon is stunning, especially the Act III opening tableau that looks like a Medieval painting, in which even the candles don’t flicker, no less the mourners surrounding Fiora’s bier in the cold crypt. Ken Yunker’s immaculate lighting casts shadows of death everywhere, and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costumes, heavy enough to weigh down the most athletic of singers, are so period oriented they have those fleas jumping out of them again. This may be melodrama, but it captures the period of the Dark Ages with an eerie, deathly pall.

And death there is, all around. You know it from the first notes played by the excellent Sarasota Opera Orchestra under the expert guidance of Victor DeRenzi. (Listen for some exquisite solos in the orchestra, including a beauty from the Concertmaster in the last act.)

This is one of those operas where, like a Shakespearean tragedy, almost everyone dies at the end, and that’s no spoiler alert. It’s how they meet their ends that makes this opera a standout among body counts on stage. Strangulation, poison, suicide and even love kill off almost all the leads, but — and this may be another reason the opera lost its popularity — not a tear is shed at the end for these characters.

Stage director Stephanie Sundine brought out all the emotion she could wring from this very static opera. The music may meander and swirl with Straussian passion, but the characters are singularly monolithic, and Sundine had the performers play their melodramatic roles with all the proper cultural understanding possible.

The small cast features four leading roles who are pivotal to the story line. Bass Kevin Short returned to Sarasota Opera as the blind king, Archibaldo, who sees more through his sightless eyes than any other character on stage. We’re told Short wore a blindfold during rehearsals, and it worked beautifully for his characterization. Short has become a great singing actor, making melodrama believable with his strong, resonant and often beautiful voice and intellectually stimulating acting. If you see this opera (and you should), watch and listen to him as he portrays a father who deeply loves his son and perhaps his daughter-in-law, even if he does her in with a stranglehold worthy of the wrestler Short has been in real-life.

Marco Nisticò turns in a fine performance as Manfredo, Archibaldo’s son, the love-smitten husband, blinded by love for a wife who loves another. He’s as compassionate and close to a character for whom one might weep if this weren’t such a melodramatic piece.

Avito, sung with great passion and skill by tenor Matthew Vickers, is more than just another gorgeous voice. He is deliriously in love, and you understand how he dies for his indiscretion.

Elizabeth Tredent is positively splendid in the all-important role of the beautiful Fiora, for whom all three royals fall and fall hard. Her voice is enough to make audience members fall for her, as well. And her acting works beautifully with her spectacularly produced voice.

Smaller roles were handled with the same beauty and excellence as the leads by Dave Suarez (Flaminio), Mark Tempesta (a young man) and Anna Bridgman (a handmaiden).

It must be said that this opera has more make-out scenes than almost anything I’ve seen except in a Gidget movie. Kisses abound and, anytime the singers have a chance to rest, especially Avito and Fiora, they do it with their lips locked together. Come to think of it, it’s Fiora’s Kiss of Death that literally does her lovers in. But she doesn’t do it knowingly, being dead at the time.

Okay. It’s easy to make fun of this work because it’s so out of style these days. But thank goodness Sarasota Opera chose to present it, especially in such a stunning production. It’s a rarity for good reason and all that give us good reason to see it.


In ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites,’ impassioned singing and acting prevail

March 7th, 2017Posted by admin

Sarasota Opera showcases its best, most cohesive cast of the season with strong singing and dramatic, believable acting.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: March 5, 2017
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Poulenc’s great, romantic tragic opera, “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” came storming into Sarasota this past weekend and took many in the audience by surprise with its passionate, horrific story. But this is no mere story. It’s based on a true incident, in which some 16 nuns were martyred by guillotine during the French Revolution. We get, not only to watch, but also to hear the swift blade as they march bravely to their deaths.

Told musically by Poulenc in his very distinctive voice (when you hear this composer, although he embodied the French Impressionist style, you know this could only be his music), these are true dialogues. Told in 12 scenes, separated by interludes as shadowy cast members change the scenery, masterfully wrought by Robert Little, we are taken behind the scenes that lead up to the ultimate sacrifice.

The cast members are all believable as members of the Carmelites, an extremely strict order of nuns that believes life’s sole mission is unceasing prayer and rigorous attention to orders. In this opera, their lives are mixed with those of people outside the convent who are in disarray, including mobs of peasants, the people they worked for and the rich, whom they hate with a passion beyond uprising.

Ken Yunker’s lighting design spotlights with accuracy and great coordination the characters currently telling the story, while Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costumes, which run the gamut from the well-to-do’s gowns to the peasant’s rags and the Carmelite nun’s accurately brown habits, keep us focused on who’s who and what class they belong to.

Best of all is Martha Collins’ succinct direction, allowing each character his or her own voice within the context of Poulenc’s music, so there is constant underscoring of the dialogues among the characters. No person on stage is lacking a personality — even the unruly mob at the end that comes, angrily, to watch a group of women sacrifice themselves at the guillotine’s altar.

David Neely, in the pit conducting the excellent Sarasota Opera Orchestra, always kept things moving in an extremely French manner, tying together all the disparate scenes and interludes so they were seamless, dramatic and overwhelmingly musically beautiful. This is not an easy opera to conduct or play because of its many separate scenes, but Neely and the orchestra kept things moving at just the right pace with enough space between swelling phrases to allow the singers the freedom to breathe.

The cast proved to be one of the most cohesive and best this season with great voices, dramatic, believable acting and a way of drawing us into each of them, from chorister to soloist, with an intensity that left us breathless.

Young Bok Kim, although given the small part of the Marquis de la Force, who appears only in the first act, gives us the important psychological backstory on his daughter, Blanche, whose mother died in childbirth, casting a pall over the household and giving Blanche a terrible guilt and leaving her to live in fear for the rest of her short life.

Blanche’s brother, the Chevalier, can’t let go of his little sister and never sees her as anything but a fragile, frightened “Little Bunny Rabbit,” never to grow into adulthood. Played by studio artist Sean Christensen, his ringing tenor led the music but never got in the way of his characterization.

Blanche, performed by Sandra Lòpez, was beautifully acted with conviction and strength, but she has a bit of a flutter to her voice that took away from the strength and depth we usually associate with this role. Especially when she was in duet with much bigger, stronger voices, her singing made her fade a bit into the background, even though she is one of the pivotal characters in this opera.

Those bigger stronger voices were also acted with supreme depth by Michelle Johnson, the loving and strong Madame Lidoine, the Second or New Prioress, who comes to take over the order when the First Prioress, Madame de Croissy dies. Played with a startling terror of death by Lisa Chavez, her cry for Mother Marie of the Incarnation is a sure sign this is not going to be an easy death for this otherwise kind and wise Prioress who’s led the order for about a dozen years.

Olivia Vote, as Mother Marie, has a large but beautiful voice that rings through the house and soars over the orchestra. She’s the ringleader who believes in martyrdom, but her ultimate fate is not what she thinks God has in mind for her, and her voice and passion stay with us beyond the last slice of the guillotine.

Clair Coolen, also a studio artist, was one of the finest of the many Sister Constances I’ve heard. She has the crystalline voice of the youngest nun, but it’s bigger and fuller than most lyric sopranos, and although depicted as a dreamer who believes in miracles, her voice gives her a strength most in that role don’t have.

The smaller roles of Mother Jeanne (August Caso), Sister Mathilde (Fleur Barron), The Father Confessor (Peter Scott Drackley), the two officers (Xavier Prado Caceres and Hans Tashjian) and the jailer (Suchan Kim), all studio artists, were sung and acted with inspiration. And Peter Morgan and Andrew Richardson, both apprentice artists, handled their parts as the valet and the physician like true professionals.

For a horrifying slice (forgive the pun) of life and death during the French Revolution, “Dialogues” is an important opera to see. For impassioned singing and acting, don’t miss it.


Music review: Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks: Estonian Voices

February 28th, 2017Posted by admin

Estonian voices bring two centuries of music to Sarasota.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 26, 2017
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Anu Tali, music director of the Sarasota Orchestra, brought some guests from her homeland of Estonia to perform with our homeland ensemble this past weekend. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is a group of 25 singers who’ve conquered the straight tone technique and sound very much like the pure, young voices that seem to be all the rage in most of the world today. They’re well trained in style and technique, and they carry well over a large orchestra.

The program this weekend was devoted to music by the contemporary composer, Arvo Pärt, followed by the beloved “Requiem” by Mozart. Pärt did much of his studying in an Estonia that was under the strict hand of the Soviet Union; in fact this constricting force forced him to leave Estonia in 1980 for the more open atmosphere of West Berlin. He’s known primarily for his religious choral music, and his “Credo,” written in 1968, caused something of a scandal in the Soviet Union where he still lived at the time, because it combined not only a religious text, but also music that was romantic, tonal and Baroque. Clearly no-no’s in the USSR’s collective mind; music that was not to be approved by the Composers’ Union.

But conductor Neeme Järvi did approve it, and he must have held his breath, because that approval could easily have destroyed both his own career and Pärt’s. It pretty much ruined the composer, but Järvi got lucky and kept his position. Meanwhile, Pärt devoted most of what was left of his career to film music until he moved to West Germany.

The performance we heard of this massive— but only 12-minute —work, was outstanding in every way. Running the gamut from beautiful, romantic sounds at the beginning, to the chaos of what Pärt must have thought of the Soviet regime with screams, wild percussion and emotional upheavals, it finally evolved to the well-defined and healing sounds of Bach.

Orchestra pianist Jonathan Spivey took on the important, percussive sound of his instrument with freshness and spirit, while the rest of the Orchestra handled the stylistic quick-changes with ease, as did the chamber choir.

The Mozart “Requiem,” was one of the last pieces the composer ever wrote. It was finished by his student, Franz Xavier Süssmayer, and although others have tackled the notes Mozart left to finish the “Requiem” over the years (including Sarasota Music Fesitval’s Robert Levin), it’s the Süssmayer completion we most often hear.

As anyone who’s heard or performed this work will attest, it’s one of the best-loved pieces of choral literature. The international soloists at this performance were soprano Pureum Jo, mezzo Sofia Selowsy, tenor Miles Mykkanen and bass Sam Handley. They had an excellent blend among them and added some interesting ornaments here and there, but the standout singer was the soprano, Pureum Jo, who had a beautiful, rich sound that began the work with just the right polish needed.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir sang with precision and stylistic understanding, but both they and the orchestra, under Tali, were particularly subdued, giving us a well-performed but somewhat inert performance. Perhaps it was the Van Wezel’s acoustics, but I felt it was more their straight tone, without vibrato, that made this “Requiem” so enervated. Whatever the reason, the “Requiem” didn’t have the brilliance and stimulation I’ve come to expect from this favorite.

Under any circumstances, the Lacrimosa (thought by some musicologists to be the last section of the work actually written by Mozart) was still tear-jerking. And the fitting encore at the conclusion of the concert, Mozart’s truly last work, “Ave Verum Corpus,” was so breathtakingly beautiful, it was worth the entire evening.


Opera review: ‘The Italian Girl in Algiers’

February 23rd, 2017Posted by admin

Sarasota Opera delivers hilarity in true Rossini fashion.


Originally published in The Observer
Date: February 19, 2017
by: June LeBell | Contributing Columnist

Rossini wrote his opera, “L’Italiana in Algeri,” when he was barely 22. “The Barber of Seville” would come along three years later — hardly a twinkle in its young father’s eye. But Rossini’s wit, wildness and most of all, Champagne bubbles, were already in full bloom.

At the Sarasota Opera’s opening of “L’Italiana” Saturday night, the famous Overture gave us a hint that there were lots of fun and surprises ahead. The Sarasota Opera Orchestra, under the precise and ebullient leadership of Anthony Barrese, gave all the whomps and emphasis to this sparkling score needed to show us the ensemble, now a full week into the season, was very much in tune with itself and the music it was making. Rossini may be playful and fun but, like Mozart before him, clarity and precision are the hallmarks of his music, while the conductor must keep things bubbling along.

The action in this funny romp of an opera, takes place in Algiers, in and around the palace of the Bey, a large, somewhat grandiose and pompous leader who’s grown bored with his current wife, Elvira, and wants to replace her with a tempestuous Italian girl. He doesn’t know who she’ll be, but he seems to have this image in his head of a fiery young thing he’ll be able to tame, molding her with his great prowess to his image of what he really deserves as a wife.

In true Rossini fashion, Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers, gets just what he deserves. It’s how he arrives there that takes us on a two-act, hilarious journey into his court. And, in the process, we’re treated to the shenanigans of his courtiers, a shipwreck that happens to deliver a bevy of Italians he makes into his slaves and, of course, one startlingly gorgeous Italian lady named Isabella.

Isabella, who is on stage almost every moment from the time she arrives in Algiers, is played with fire and conviction by Tara Venditti, who turns her into the adult Despina from Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” She’s clever and conniving, able to twist all men around her finger, and she even sings (as does Despina in the Mozart) that all men are made the same; they’re all fools. And, trapped in this new situation as a replacement wife-to-be, she proceeds to mow down every man who tries to seduce her, except the one she really loves, Lindoro, who happens to be in the court. Of course.

Every voice on stage in this wonderful new production by stage director Mark Freiman, is a fine one. The first act was a bit too careful and studied and, on stage, missed the bubbles that were rising from the orchestra pit. But in Act II, everyone started to relax and have fun, resulting in real Rossiniana and some hilarious bits of stage action.

Actually, the fun began at the finale of Act I, when Freiman introduced some hilarious stage business that took the singers into a crazy wave (think sports waves) and made the audience laugh so hard it almost overpowered the singers. From there on, the schtick, which was carried out to a T by the performers, produced bust-a-gut laughter, the performers all seemed to be having a ball and the Rossini bubbles burst forth from the stage.

“L’Italiana” is an opera that needs great singers, who can negotiate a huge range, lots of fast embellishments, sing patter songs faster than Gilbert and Sullivan ever dreamed up and be individual characters who become beloved by the audience. The character who succeeded best at all this was Isabella’s companion, Taddeo (Bruno Taddia), who knew the style in his bones and went on to inspire both the audience and his compatriots on stage with a wonderful zeal. Elvira (Jessica E. Jones) and her slave and friend, Zulma (Fleur Barron), both accomplished studio artists, were in fine voice and strong character.

Harold Wilson as Mustafa, warmed to his role as the opera progressed, and as he relaxed, he became his character and had less trouble with the musical fioratura and pitch than he had in the beginning. Hak Soo Kim, the tenor in the shoes of Lindoro (Mustafa’s favorite slave who also happens to be madly in love with Isabella), has a fine, vibrant voice that also warmed as he became his character and seemed to have a ball doing it. And Haly, sung by Studio Artist Alexander Charles Boyd, was just right as the conspiratorial Captain of the Algerian corsairs.

Of course, once we meet her, the world of this opera revolves around the diminutive but mighty shoulders of Isabella, and Tara Venditti did her proper justice. She has a smaller voice than we’re used to hearing in this role but with a good, solid more-than-two-octave range that’s smooth from bottom to top, and a great stage demeanor, she brought off the power of this independent woman and twists, not only her stage compatriots around her finger, but also manages to win the hearts of the audience.

The clever sets by scenic designer Michal Schweikardt take us, in the blink of an eye, from rooms inside the palace to the seashore and even a moving ship. They’re well lit by Ken Yunker, and the costumes (sometimes hilarious in themselves), are well conceived by Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Roger Bingaman’s small but impressive chorus is powerful and well acted by Sarasota Opera Apprentice Artists.

For a respite from traffic and politics of the day, “L’Italiana” is the perfect prescription.