June LeBell, Iconic WQXR Host and ‘Quintessential New Yorker,’ Dies at 73

May 3rd, 2017Posted by admin

Article written by James Bennett,II on WQXR.org:

June LeBell, a longtime host for WQXR and the first woman to announce for a major commercial classical radio station, died of ovarian cancer on Sunday, April 30. She was 73 years old.

For nearly 30 years, LeBell graced WQXR with her friendly personality and deep knowledge of its musical subject matter. During her time with the station, she interviewed many notable musicians, composers and critics. Recognitions for her on-air legacy and accomplishments were many, among them a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Broadcasters Club of Florida and a Gabriel Award for outstanding broadcasts. She was also named a “Quintessential New York Woman” by Town and Country Magazine.

LeBell was born in New York City in 1944, and her early years and education revolved around music. She attended the High School of Music and Art and continued her education at the Mannes College of Music (now Mannes School of Music), and graduated from the Hartt School of music. She built a career as a professional singer; her teachers were Adele Addison and Martial Singher. LeBelle performed recitals in Tanglewood and Aspen, and also toured Europe.

in 1973, the 29-year-old LeBell joined WQXR as not only its first woman host, but that of any major commercial classical radio station. Every Wednesday evening, listeners were treated to the sound of her voice on “IBM’s Salute to the Arts,” an award-winning musical documentary program.

One of her shows, “Kitchen Classics,” was a spirited focus on the intersection of two of LeBell’s great loves: music and food. Her guests — who included Julia Child, Itzhak Perlman, Marilyn Horne and many others — would engage in discussions about their favorite foods, while LeBell shared appropriately curated musical selections. A natural outgrowth of this program was a cookbook, Kitchen Classics from the Philharmonic (Doubleday, 1992), which paired close looks of various personalities from a century and a half of New York Philharmonic history with a recipe to match.

LeBell is remembered fondly by her colleagues. Nimet Habachy, a fellow WQXR host and a close friend, considers herself extremely fortunate to have known LeBell over the years. As the only two women at WQXR for a time, she noted how LeBell “just took her in” and described a blossoming professional and personal friendship. “She was a good lady and exciting to be around,” said Habachy. LeBell was active, ready to play a part in the larger community. “She was always vibrant, and I loved her.”

Morning show host Jeff Spurgeon also had the pleasure of working with LeBell. “I think she loved her life and was grateful for all the opportunities she’d known. She was supportive of her colleagues and remained interested in us and in WQXR even after she left New York and began the new chapter of her life in Florida,” said Spurgeon. “It’s no surprise that she became a part of the cultural scene in Sarasota — he loved celebrating the arts and knew how to do it well.”

In addition to her work with WQXR, LeBell served on the advisory boards of the Bloomingdale School of Music and the High School of Music and Art, as well as the auxiliary board of the New York Philharmonic. She also shared her vast knowledge with others in lectures across the city. She hosted the lecture series “The Sound of Broadway” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and other cultural institutions she spoke at included the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museums.

In her later home of Sarasota, Florida, LeBell hosted Music Mondays at the Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning.

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Life Lessons From June LeBell

May 3rd, 2017Posted by admin

Article written by Fred Plotkin on WQXR.org:

June LeBell, WQXR’s first female announcer and a beloved member of the station’s family, died in Sarasota, Fla. on April 30, a day after her 73rd birthday and one day before her eighth wedding anniversary with Edward Alley, a musician and arts manager whom she “treasured and adored,” as she told me.

She was a proud New Yorker, born in 1944 at Knickerbocker Hospital in Harlem and raised in the city. She graduated from the High School of Music and Art in 1961 and had a full career in broadcasting, writing and performing in New York before moving to Sarasota after 9/11.

She (and Ed) fought the good fight after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012. They continued to live life meaningfully, full of music, good food and friends. June, through her example but also through her speaking and writing, taught many of us to savor the beauty life has to offer for whatever time we have.

June was very open about her illness. She asked me to share it in an article I wrote about her on Feb. 23, 2016. Last December she wrote, “I’ve learned a lot from this surgery and all the side effects: I adore and cherish my husband. He does so much for me and I’m so grateful. Pain really interferes with life and changes personality (I’m trying to overcome that) … When I get my strength back, I’ll be grateful to have a body, no matter the shape. Ed and I married just 7 years ago … We traveled, swam with dolphins and adored each other, thinking we were fine. Know what? We were. Be careful what you pray and wish for. Sometimes we have everything and don’t stop to appreciate it!”

In June’s three decades at WQXR and then during her years in Sarasota, she lived a life of speaking, teaching, broadcasting and sharing everything she loved. If you know me and my work, you realize that June and I had many overlapping passions. Some people might have behaved competitively but June was remarkably encouraging to younger people who shared her interests, showed talent, and were willing to work very hard. For many years she worked 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. She was an example of the dictum that there are no short cuts if you want to do superb work. I do my best to honor her example.

June was a remarkable interviewer whose preparation as a musician and researcher enabled her to ask questions that elicited responses both sincere and original. If she caught you off guard, it was not to make you uncomfortable but to have you say things you might not have realized you knew.

She respected all of her guests and only claimed to have been starstruck twice — with George Balanchine and Walter Cronkite. I know public figures who were starstruck upon meeting her, but she always put them at ease. Being interviewed by June meant having a conversation in which you learned from her while she let her audience learn from you.

June also understood that the arts can teach us things, through example and emotion, that more literal study might fail to reveal. On March 5, she published a review in the Observer of Sarasota Opera’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. In the opera, the Old Prioress dies a visibly painful death, very likely of cancer. It is very difficult to watch even if you are not battling this illness, so I read June’s description with care: “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.” This was June: passionate and dispassionate at the same time.

On April 24, she posted on Facebook: “We called in Hospice. They’re coming to us and they seem wonderful. Bringing a hospital bed today. They’re here for both life and transition. It’s time. I’ll try to stay in touch and update you as much as I can. You’ve all been great supporters and the love and prayers have helped tremendously. I can’t thank you enough! I’m hanging around a bit. Maybe. Not scared. Very calm and at peace. Love you.”

When the Empire State Building was lit in blue last Dec. 3 to celebrate WQXR’s 80th anniversary. June wrote “It was an honor to work for this great station for 30 years and to be its very first female staff announcer. When you’re doing it, you don’t think of it as historic or anything but being very fortunate to be making a career at the nation’s best and best-known commercial classical station. Looking back, I’m bowled over by the memories and colleagues. I worked with the best of the best and they taught me! Duncan Pirnie, Matt Thomas, Peter Allen, George Edwards, Hugh Morgan, Mel Elliot, wow! And our engineering staff, Doc, Herb, Phil, Al, Maurice. What a legacy. And, of course Bob Sherman and George Jellinek. And then Nimet and Clayelle, Candice, and Midge, who came after me. Was I ever blessed. Shine proudly blue Empire State Building for WQXR at 80.”

Our light is momentarily dimmed but our memories of June LeBell will continue to burn bright. To remember June, I will listen to this performance of Brahms Lieder by Christa Ludwig and Leonard Bernstein. Her favorite, she said, was “Mainacht” (“May Night”) which comes at 13:10.

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Remembering June LeBell, the voice of Sarasota’s music community

May 2nd, 2017Posted by admin

Known for her warmth and expertise, the singer, music critic, radio personality and lecturer died Sunday, April 30.

 

Originally published in The Observer
Date: May 1, 2017
by: Nick Friedman | Managing Editor of Arts and Culture

One didn’t need to meet June LeBell to feel like she was a friend. In fact, many felt a connection to the music writer, radio personality and lecturer through her voice alone.

June LeBell died Sunday, April 30, after a five-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was 73.

For those who knew her —and for many who didn’t — LeBell’s voice is the first thing to come to mind.

For 30 years, it rang out across the airwaves in New York City to greet WQXR’s evening listeners. As the first female announcer on a major commercial classical music radio station, she interviewed some of the biggest names in the arts — composer Aaron Copland, former artistic director of the New York City Ballet George Balanchine — and countless others. She earned 17 awards for her broadcasts, as well as the Florida Broadcasters Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

A graduate of the High School of Music and Art and the Mannes College of Music in New York City, and the Hartt College of Music in Connecticut, she lent her voice to both creating music and sharing her love for the art. In addition to being a radio host, she was also a professional concert singer, as well as a lecturer, leading her long-running Metropolitan Museum of Art series, “The Sound of Broadway” and Sarasota Institute of Lifetime Learning’s Musical Conversations.

No matter the outlet, she loved connecting musicians and music lovers.

“Through those live interviews and performances, thousands of people got to know her,” says Joseph Holt, artistic director of Choral Artists of Sarasota, who shared hosting duties at Musical Conversations’ Venice sessions. “In the same way you see actors onscreen and they resonate with you, watching June, you felt like friends. A lot of people felt very close to her — not only through her experience on the radio in New York City, but also down here. You could look up at a room of 800 to 1,000 people, and all of them feel like they’re best friends with the commentator. She had a unique gift for making that happen.”

Following 9/11, LeBell left New York City and moved to Sarasota, where she wrote for The Observer as music critic. Observer Group Vice President Lisa Walsh recalls the first time they spoke.

“She called me out of the blue and said she wanted to write reviews for The Observer,” says Walsh. “Of course, I knew who she was; I was taken back at first. She had such a beautiful voice — as smooth as velvet. She had me at hello. She brought such a wealth of knowledge, which along with her great personality, added so much to our artistic community.”

LeBell wrote weekly music reviews and other columns for The Observer, where she fostered the growth of local musicians with both a critical ear and gracious writing. She especially loved opera.

Richard Russell, executive director of the Sarasota Opera, first met LeBell in 2005, when she was directing the performing arts center at The Glenridge and he was starting a position as the opera’s marketing director.

As he reached out to Sarasota’s journalists, LeBell was one of the first on his list.

“I had known June’s voice for many years,” says Russell. “I grew up in the New York City area, listening to WQXR, so I was familiar with her voice, and I was excited to meet her in person after having listened to her for so long. For someone with such an incredible career and so much knowledge and experience, she was such a warm person. She made me feel so welcome, like I was talking to an old friend. I had scheduled an hour for our lunch, but we stayed and talked for much longer. Anyone who went to one of her SILL lectures recognized her warmth. I hope she’s remembered for that.”

LeBell went on hospice care Tuesday, April 24, updating friends and family on Facebook.

“We called in hospice. They’re coming to us, and they seem wonderful. Bringing a hospital bed today. They’re here for both life and transition. It’s time. I’ll try to stay in touch and update you as much as I can. You’ve all been great supporters and the love and prayers have helped tremendously. I can’t thank you enough! I’m hanging around a bit. Maybe. Not scared. Very calm and at peace. Love you!”

LeBell’s husband Edward Alley says her sparkling personality — and trademark grace — shone through until the end.

“June was a truly remarkable human being,” he wrote online in a statement Sunday. “Talented, loving and gifted beyond belief in so many ways. We will all miss her very much. Yesterday was her 73rd birthday, and tomorrow is our eighth wedding anniversary. Elegant timing as always. My thoughts go out to all of you who will also miss her so very much.”

Alley says a funeral service and reception will be announced soon in Sarasota and a memorial service and reception will be held at Marble Collegiate church in New York City. In lieu of flowers, contributions should be made to Tidewell Hospice, Sarasota Orchestra or Sarasota Opera.

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June LeBell, a pioneering classical music radio host and interviewer, dies at 73

May 2nd, 2017Posted by admin

Herald-Tribune photo/ Thomas Bender

June LeBell with Marvin Hamlisch

June LeBell with Marvin Hamlisch

June LeBell with Jacques d'Amboise

June LeBell with Jacques d’Amboise

Article from heraldtribune.com:

SARASOTA — Even in “retirement” in Sarasota, June LeBell never stepped far away from a microphone.

After an early start as a professional singer, she turned her love for classical music into a groundbreaking career on WQXR in New York, where she became the first female announcer for a commercial classical music station in the country. And she carried on as the host of lecture series and radio shows and as an arts leader after she moved to Sarasota in 2002.

Before her death Sunday after a long battle with ovarian cancer, LeBell built up a popular conversation series, “Music Mondays,” for the Sarasota Institute for Lifetime Learning that outgrew its longtime home in Holley Hall, and regularly attracted more than 900 people each week after moving to Church of the Palms. She wrote music reviews for The Observer newspaper group, and hosted “June LeBell’s Musical Conversation” for two years on the classical radio station WSMR.

“She had a way of burrowing into a community,” said her husband, Edward Alley, who first met LeBell in the early 1980s during a radiothon fundraiser for the New York Philharmonic, where he was the manager. “She did so much for so many. She changed the complexion of classical music radio from being stodgy to being friendly and open and warm.”

LeBell’s passing came one day after her 73rd birthday and a day before the couple’s eighth wedding anniversary.

A graduate of the High School of Music and Art in New York and the Hartt College of Music, LeBell was offered a job at WQXR, the classical station owned for many years by The New York Times, in 1972.

“I thought I can use everything I’ve ever learned about the voice and classical music and languages and make money at it, and really have a career,” she told the Herald-Tribune in 2014.

During her nearly 30 years there, she interviewed thousands of artists, celebrities and politicians, from Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti to Rudolph Giuliani, Jacques d’Amboise and Marvin Hamlisch. She even got many of them to share recipes for her 1992 book “Kitchen Classics from the Philharmonic.”

She also brought an intense curiosity and personality to her work.

“She was such a sparkling character. She had such a great love of life and a love of people and music and art in general,” said Joseph Holt, who became artistic director of Gloria Musicae in 2008 while LeBell was serving as executive director.

The 9/11 attacks triggered her move to Sarasota. She recalled being thrown from her bed by the force of the planes slamming into World Trade Center just a few blocks from her Manhattan apartment. She was forced out of her home for more than three months and decided it was time to leave the city.

Her retirement was brief. Not long after arriving in Sarasota, she became the programming director at the Glenridge retirement center and sang with Gloria Musicae. She also served on the boards of directors of numerous organizations.

Making time for friends

Despite a busy schedule, she also made time for friends.

“She never seemed to give less than 1,000 percent to everything she did, whether a friendship, a lecture, or a review or a dinner party,” said Joan Golub, a close friend. “She was fiercely loyal in her friendships as she was in her determination to live her life to the fullest. And she never quit until she no longer had the energy to do it and that’s just been in the last couple of weeks. She was the kind of friend that you knew if you needed her, she was there, and those friendships are hard to come by.”

D’Amboise — the former New York City Ballet star, a decade her senior — first came to know LeBell when she was a child. Her father, Irving LeBell, was pediatrician for the dancer’s children and frequently asked his daughter to perform during social gatherings in their home.

“Irving and his wife, Harriette, swelled and pulsated with pride every time they spoke of June,” d’Amboise recalled in an email. “She was not yet a teenager, but she already had the stage presence and aplomb of an opera star. Music was always center to their family and music was the sea that June felt most comfortable in.”

D’Amboise was among the many celebrities who appeared in LeBell’s lecture programs.

Alley and LeBell reconnected not long after he moved to Sarasota with his wife, the singer Nancy Williams. A few years after Williams’ death, he had his first date with LeBell at a party on the stage of the Sarasota Opera House.

“June and I were blessed with eight years of what everybody hopes to have,” Alley said. “In every sort of way, it was an absolutely wonderful relationship. We were best friends. We had a wonderful time working together. It was almost a fairy tale romance. We just loved being together.”

Alley said LeBell believed “that the more you give, the more you get. Her legacy is the good will and love that she gave to so many people and that was returned I think.” Her Facebook page has been filled with hundreds of tributes since news of her death was posted there Sunday evening.

She inspired many in recent years with her open and frank Facebook postings about the ups and downs of her cancer treatments, through a long period of remission to a reoccurrance within the last six months.

Last week, she sent a note to friends that her chemotherapy treatments were no longer working and that Hospice had been called to her Sarasota home.

“I’ve been very blessed and lucky through all this. I was able to work through 10 of 12 SILL lectures and write reviews most of the winter season,” she wrote. “But this is no quality of life.” She had already completed planning for another season of SILL lectures, Alley said.

In addition to Alley, she is survived by an older sister, Barbara of Simi Valley, two nephews, Andrew and Robin Joseph, a cousin Paige Farr of Sarasota, and many other cousins and her beloved toy poodle, Rosy.

A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. May 8 at Church of the Palms, 3224 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota. Instead of flowers, contributions may be made to Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota Opera or Tidewell Hospice.

Staff writer Carrie Seidman contributed to this report.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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