By Lawrence Budmen

The Central Florida coastal city of Sarasota plays host to a chamber music feast each June. Students from around the globe come to this entrancing tropical destination to study for three weeks with a distinguished roster of faculty artists. This year’s Sarasota Music Festival heralded the beginning of Robert Levin’s tenure as artistic director.

Levin is a true artistic renaissance man – piano virtuoso, musicologist, period instrument specialist, Mozart scholar, and professor of humanities at Harvard University. (He has made a valiant attempt at completing Mozart’s Mass in C minor. His splendid completion of the Salzburg master’s Requiem has been recorded by Bernard Labadie and Donald Runnicles.) Levin’s scholarly background infused the festival programming with several musical rarities, at least one of which was a neglected gem. As host and pre-concert lecturer, the new director’s combination of charm and musical erudition beguiled audiences. 

During the festival’s final weekend, Levin’s penchant for exploring the byways of the repertoire struck gold with Joaquin Turina’s Piano Trio No.2 in B minor, Op.76 (at an Artist Showcase concert at the intimate Holley Hall on June 21). This score is a real find. The Spanish composer’s three movement work glows with sensuous, inspired melodies and romantic ardor. In the brilliant keyboard part, Susan Starr was on fire. Her dazzling virtuosity and exquisite sense of line and texture were totally captivating. Violinist James Buswell’s soaring tone and cellist Desmond Hoebig’s thrilling sonority met every challenge of this unjustly neglected score. (Hoebig is a first chair player in the superb Cleveland Orchestra.) 

Turina’s commanding opus was preceded by chamber music chestnuts by Vivaldi and Schumann. A vigorous traversal of Vivaldi’s Flute Sonata in C Major (Il Pastor Fido) was marked by the florid lyricism and daring flexibility in the high register of flutist Leone Buyse. The exquisite tonal hues of clarinetist Franklin Cohen (a principal of the Cleveland ensemble) and blazing impetuosity of pianist Jean Schneider captured the darkly brooding subtext of Schumann’s Phantasiestuck, Op.73. For desert Levin and violinist Theodore Arm sailed through Sonata Boogie by Victor Steinhardt, brother of violinist and Guarneri Quartet stalwart Arnold Steinhardt. (This glistening confection – half jazz, half Paganini style pyrotechnics – would make an ideal showpiece for Itzhak Perlman or Joshua Bell.) Levin and Arm certainly brought élan and Stephane Grappelli inspired pizzazz to their performance. 

With the Sarasota Opera House undergoing renovation, the festival has moved its evening concerts to the Church of the Palms. While six miles away from festival headquarters at the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, this handsome sanctuary features warm, resonant acoustics and wonderful intimacy between musicians and audience. If the expanded opera house proves sonically inhospitable to chamber music, the management should consider making this sanctuary the festival’s permanent performance space.

At the concert on June 22, faculty and students both took turns on stage. The level of playing proved equally splendid by both groups. The Gallic charm of Faure’s Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor, Op.15 was given incendiary passion by Levin, Buswell, Hoebig, and Robert Vernon, principal viola of the Cleveland Orchestra. The lively, Ravel tinged wit and eccentricity of the Scherzo: Allegro vivo was vividly conveyed while the rapturous Allegro molto finale emerged with lush, scintillating tonal hues. (Vernon may be the finest viola principal in any major American orchestra.)

In the student postlude, an excellent wind contingent gave a delightful performance of the Overture and two excerpts from Mozart’s Magic Flute. Their playing brought sparkle to these rarely encountered wind band arrangements. An energetic version of the Allegro vivace from Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds (1932-39) spotlighted Bo-Kyung Park’s pianistic energy and Jill K. Bartels’ exceptional dexterity and tonal heft in the exposed horn part. (Both are students at the Cleveland Institute of Music.)

The opening Allegro Moderato, Tres doux from Ravel’s String Quartet received sensuous treatment from violinists So Young Bae and Hong Ji-Kim, violist Katerina Istomin (all students at New York’s Julliard School) and cellist Peter Myers (from the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles). The musicians’ technically secure, fluent playing belied any student designation. The concluding Theme russe: Allegro from Beethoven’s String Quartet No.7 in F, Op.59, No.1 was nothing short of incandescent in the hands of violinists David Coucheron and Linda Barlund, violist Luke Fleming, and cellist Elizabeth Chung (all from Julliard). Their silken tone and superbly nuanced playing surpassed the work of many well established quartets. At an afternoon musicale, the first movement – Adagio-Allegro Vivace – of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.13 was delivered with intense urgency by another impressive string contingent – violinist Sean Lee and violist Jessica Oudin (Julliard), violinist Mattieu Arama ( Boston’s Longy School of Music), and cellist Myers. The level of string playing was quite astounding! 

Earlier in the evening Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Quintet in B-flat Major (1876) proved a quirky novelty. With some lovely lyrical writing for piano and winds, bravura cadenzas, and witty fugal invention, this score certainly casts its composer in an unfamiliar light. The whimsical theme of the final Rondo: Allegretto could well have been penned by Prokofiev four decades later. The terrific musicianship of Starr, Buyse, Cohen, bassoonist John Miller, and horn player Froydis Ree Wekre delivered a stellar performance. Wekre’s gorgeous tone and agility were remarkable. 

Despite some initial horn problems, Mozart’s Divertimento No.7 in D Major, K.205 was a sprightly opener. Arm, Vernon, and bassist Gregory Hustis were particularly resplendent in a vivacious version of the Presto finale.

The festival’s concluding concert on June 23 reached an artistic crescendo with an effervescent reading of Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat Major, Op.84 that featured the student orchestra and a substantial faculty contingent in the solo parts. This high spirited work reaches its peak in an Allegro con spirito that spells Papa Haydn at his witty best. Yet the serenity of the Andante seems to flow from some other worldly source. The excellent ensemble was led with verve and finesse by Dante Anzolini (who will make his debut next season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera conducting Phillip Glass’ Sataygraha). The silvery sound of Buswell’s violin, the rapid fire agility and patrician phrasing of cellist Ronald Leonard, the auburn glow of oboist Nancy Ambrose King’s tone, and the remarkable aural compass of Miller’s bassoon all contributed to a high spirited, stellar presentation of this wonderful classical soufflé. In many ways this performance was the defining moment of the festival. 

Anzolini opened the program with a spacious reading of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Fine wind playing commanded attention but the church acoustic was not flattering to the blending of orchestral timbres. Starr unfurled her most florid keyboard technique in a Chopinesque version of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54. Soloist, conductor, and orchestra collaborated on a wonderfully satisfying account of this repertoire staple.

Levin’s plans for the 2008 festival are even more ambitious. He plans commemorations of the 100th anniversaries of the birth of Elliot Carter and Olivier Messiaen and the death of Pablo de Sarasate; the 125th anniversaries of the birth of Edgar Varese and Anton Webern and the death of Richard Wagner; and the 150th anniversaries of the birth of Giacomo Puccini and Eugene Ysaye plus important tributes to the Baroque giants Couperin and Rameau. Under the new director, the Sarasota Music Festival promises fascinating programming and great music making!

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