THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF MUSIC - ELOQUENT SCHUMANN TRIO TOPS SARASOTA FESTIVAL

By Lawrence Budmen 

The romance and passion of Robert Schumann's music mask the dark side of this troubled composer's life. In 1843 Schumann suffered the first of a series of nervous breakdowns which would prefigure the composer's final mental collapse. Schumann experienced a "return to life" in the late 1840's - his creative batteries recharged, his impetus to compose newly rejuvenated. From this period comes the triumphant Second Symphony. In 1847 Schumann penned one of his greatest chamber music scores - the "Piano Trio No.1 in D Minor," Opus 63. An eloquent performance of that masterwork capped a weekend of concerts at the Sarasota (Florida, USA) Music Festival.

Sarasota has long been a tourist mecca on Florida's Gulf Coast. For the past four decades Paul Wolfe has organized and directed a world class chamber music festival there. Distinguished artists from around the globe come to teach master classes and coach 50 student musicians (who are chosen from over a thousand auditioned applicants). The faculty and student concerts feature performances of tremendous vitality and enthusiasm. Mature artists and students alike rediscover the joy of making music! (The festival is not Sarasota's only musical oasis. The Sarasota Opera - under conductor Victor DeRenzi - has been acclaimed for its ongoing cycle of the complete Verdi operas. The Florida West Coast Symphony - under awarding winning musical director Leif Bjaland - is a rising professional ensemble.)

The Sarasota Opera House is an elegant, warmly resonant venue for the evening concerts. At the June 12 concert, the Schumann D Minor Trio received a deeply moving performance. This past season pianist Robert Levin enthralled a Lincoln Theater audience with his lively performance of Mozart's E-flat Major Piano Concerto - replete with ornate ornamentation (with Nicholas McGegan and the New World Symphony). In the Schumann, Levin's bold, impassioned pianism overflowed with a rainbow of tonal colors. Violinist Joseph Silverstein - long a distinguished soloist, conductor, and chamber musician - offered a lithe, fleet fingered account of the lively Scherzo. The slow movement featured darkly resonant playing from Silverstein and cellist Ronald Leonard, a patrician artist. The three artists brought magisterial eloquence to the spacious finale (with uplifting thematic material similar to that in the finale of Schumann's Second Symphony). Preceding the Schumann work, Silverstein and Ani Kavafian gave a virtuosic account of Sergei Prokofiev's "Sonata for Two Violins," Opus 56 (1932). The melting lyricism of the Commodo (Quasi allegretto) and the panache of the Allegro con brio finale were given full measure by the Silverstein-Kavafian duo. Former Florida International University faculty member Susan Starr opened the program with an elegantly sculptured reading of Beethoven's charming "Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major," Opus 16. The liquid toned oboe of Allan Vogel, warm clarinet sound of Franklin Cohen, commanding horn of Julie Landsman (a first chair of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), and the richly beautiful bassoon of Frank Morelli (principal bassoonist of the New York City Opera Orchestra, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic, and American Composers Orchestra) all contributed to a captivating performance. A particularly songful Andante Cantabile and invigorating Rondo capped a stellar performance of a unique work - Beethoven in a light vein (as entertainer)! 

A near perfect performance of Johannes Brahms's gloriously lyrical "Clarinet Quintet in B Minor," Opus 115 highlighted the June 11 concert. The mellow clarinet tones of Franklin Cohen, principal clarinet of the Cleveland Orchestra, were a joy to hear. Cohen was alive to the unique shape, phrasing, and nuances of every bar of this miraculous score. He really listened to his colleagues' playing and unleashed his tonal palette in a gorgeous blend of sound. The incisive playing of Silverstein and Kavafian, the darkly burnished hues of violist Barbara Westphal (an instructor at the Musikhochschule in Lubeck, Germany), and the warm, glowing tone of Ronald Leonard (former principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) made this performance special. The gleaming line of the Andantino (a typically Brahmsian melody) and the autumnal glow of the final Con moto were but two highlights of this wonderful account of a late Brahms treasure! The 1944 "Trio" by Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) proved to be a scintillating, Gallic influenced rarity. Starr gave rhythmic thrust to the darting piano line. Flutist Leone Buyse brought golden tone and agility to the bravura wind writing. Cellist Christopher Henkel offered protean support. Levin's elegant, grandly romantic piano pyrotechnics enlivened a fine rendition of Mendelssohn's lovely "Piano Quartet No.2 in F Minor," Opus 2. This remarkable creation of the 14 year old Mendelssohn deserves more frequent performances. The melodies are inspired; the formal structure is tight and rigorous. Levin's light, spirited playing was abetted by the warm string tones of Kavafian, Westphal, and Henkel. A worthy revival! 

The intimate, acoustically bright Holley Hall at Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center was the perfect venue for an afternoon musicale on June 10. Cellist Christopher Henkel (a professor at the Staatliche Hochschule fur Musik, Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany) gave an impeccably stylish performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Suite No.1" (for Unaccompanied Cello). Henkel did not attempt to copy the thin, vibratoless sound of the period instrument movement. His warm, full tone and strongly accented phrasing were in the tradition of the great Pablo Casals (who revived Bach's cello music in the 20th century). The dance movements really flowed with springy, vigorous rhythms. The austere beauty of the music was truly glorious! Great Bach playing! Timothy Cobb, the newly appointed principal bass of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, deftly negotiated the intricacies of Paul Hindemith's astringent "Sonata." The final Molto Adagio was a fascinating contemporary version of a Baroque aria turned dissonant with a sudden shift to a lively Italianate coda. Allan Vogel, principal oboe of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, brought beautifully wistful tone and soaring, arching line to three "Romances" by Robert Schumann. This passionate Romantic music was a real sleeper - a neglected 19th century minor masterpiece. Vogel's playing was a model of great artistry! Robert Levin contributed rhapsodic eloquence and bravado to the important piano line. (Schumann was one of the greatest creators of music for the keyboard instrument.) Flutist Leone Buyse (former first chair of the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops) and pianist Michael Adcock closed the program with Schubert's Variations on "Trockne Blumen" from "Die Schone Mullerin," D.802. This delightfully enchanting light music was fully served by the silvery purity of Buyse's flute and Adcock's emphatic playing.

Standouts among the many performances by the gifted student participants included an intense, passionate version of the Allegro and Lento Maestoso from Dvorak's "Trio in E Minor," Opus 90 ("Dumky") by pianist Weiyin Chen (a keyboard dynamo), violinist Luis Esnaola, and cellist Michael Block; bassoonist Maria Jeleztcheva's gracious rendering of two movements from Francois Devienne's "Quartet No.2" (with a fine string contingent); a bright toned rendition of John Harbison's tartly atonal "Quintet for Winds"; Violist Joanna Patterson's impassioned, rich toned playing in the opening movement of Smetana's Quartet "From My Life"; Elliot Carter's witty version of atonality in "Etudes and Fantasies" with brilliant oboe solos by Meaghan Walker; a taut interpretation of the Allegro moderato from Schubert's "Trio in B flat," Opus 99 by a brilliantly gifted Julliard threesome - violinist Emily Ondracek, cellist Grace Kwon, and pianist Skookkyung Cho; pianist Cong Fan's brilliant articulation in the Fugue and Scherzo from Dimitri Shostakovich's "Quintet in V-flat," Opus 67 (written for the great Sviatoslav Richter) ; and a warmly passionate version of the Andante ma moderato from Brahms's magisterial "Sextet in B flat," Opus 18. 

The Sarasota Music Festival provides a unique concert atmosphere for artists and audiences alike. It was a joy to hear many rarely played works in outstanding performances. The superb chamber music gatherings (in suitably intimate surroundings) by faculty and students at this festival are eloquent testimony to the transformative power of music! 


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