By Lawrence Budmen

During the first three weeks of June each year, the charming Gulf Coast city of Sarasota becomes Florida’s chamber music mecca. Eighty five students from America’s top conservatories join a faculty of distinguished concert artists and pedagogues for a series of masterclasses, coaching sessions and public concerts. Now under the direction of pianist-musicologist Robert Levin (professor of humanities at Harvard University), the event lives up to its billing as “The Official Teaching and Performing Festival of the State of Florida” with an eclectic mix of standard and rarely heard repertoire in performances that often equal or surpass the work of well established chamber ensembles. A visit to the Festival’s second week of concerts proved invigorating and inspiring. 

A late afternoon concert on June 12 in the intimate Holley Hall at Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center (home of Sarasota’s Florida West Coast Symphony) was capped by a masterful reading of Beethoven’s valedictory keyboard sonata (No.32 in C minor, op.11) by Claude Frank. A pupil of Artur Schnabel, perhaps the greatest Beethoven interpreter of the 20th century, Frank is a pianistic patrician. He imbued the opening Maestoso – Allegro con brio with fleet fingered, high strung drama. By contrast Frank captured the long limbed, soaring melodic line of the concluding Arietta - Adagio molto semplice e cantabile with unhurried grace. A faculty member at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and the Yale School of Music, Frank gave a vivid demonstration of deeply probing artistry.

Earlier Rameau’s Troisieme Concert in A Major from Pieces de clavecin en concert proved a charming divertissement of wry Baroque dance rhythms, especially when played with such captivating brio by flutist Carol Wincenc, a paragon of agile, stately musicianship and shimmering tonal sonorities. She received solid support from double-bassist Timothy Cobb (a first chair player in New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) and free spirited harpsichordist Jonathan Spivey. Surges of romantic impetuosity abound in Schumann’s Marchenbilder (Scenes from Fairyland). In the concluding Langsam movement, a melody of sublime transcendence brings the solo viola to new heights. (Schumann was one of the first composers to write a solo work for that instrument.) Violist James Dunham (a former member of the Cleveland Quartet) gave an expressive but small scaled performance. Pianist Jean Schneider provided the impassioned, big boned playing that is quintessentially Schumann. 

The Festival’s Friday and Saturday evening concerts take place in the newly renovated Sarasota Opera House, a comfortable art deco era movie palace with warmly reverberant acoustics. On June 13 Beethoven’s Piano Trio No.3 in C minor opened the program with an appropriate combination of charm and gravitas. Pianist Susan Starr’s dexterity and intelligent musicality brought dynamic life to every bar. Unfortunately violinist Joseph Silverstein’s technique seemed frayed and unreliable. Nevertheless he played with passion. Substituting for cellist Desmond Hoebig who was sidelined with an injury, Clive Greensmith (from the Tokyo String Quartet) exhibited distinctive tone and superb instrumental control. 

Silverstein seemed reinvigorated for the original chamber version of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. Conducting from his concertmaster’s seat, Silverstein brought delicate lyricism and spacious pacing to a performance rich in beauty and fervent romanticism. His soaring, honeyed tone carried a student-faculty ensemble. Norway’s Froydis Ree Wekre (a former principal in the Oslo Philharmonic) was exceptional in Wagner’s extended horn solos. The chamber version allows one to hear much of the inner voices and instrumental textures that are obscured in large scale orchestral versions. With such faculty luminaries as Wincenc, Cobb, oboist Allan Vogel, clarinetist Charles Neidich and bassoonist Frank Morelli contributing gorgeous solo turns, the student members of the ensemble held their own. Cellist Julia Yang and violist Alexander Petersen were particularly impressive, producing rotund, fully burnished tone. Violinist Elizabeth Fayette, clarinetist Benjamin Davis and French horn player Brigette Bencoe made stellar contributions to a performance that soared in ecstatic rapture. 

Dvorak’s early Piano Quartet No.1 in D Major, Op.23 is an unjustly neglected gem. Abounding in the composer’s typically rich melodies, Czech dances and bursts of romantic fervor, this score deserves repeated hearings. Pianist John Perry (a faculty member at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music) exhibited a light, winning touch, disarming flair and real musicality in the prominent keyboard writing. The superb chamber playing of violinist Federico Agostini (former concertmaster of I Musici), Dunham and Greensmith would be hard to equal. Here was a great ensemble performance by musicians who were clearly enthralled with a newly found treasure. 

A student postlude performance was not in any way anticlimactic. The quirky Charleston movement from a work for flute, clarinet and piano by American iconoclast Paul Schoenfield mixed dissonance with nostalgia in an appealing manner. Violinist Jae-Won Bang (a firebrand from Los Angeles’ Coburn Conservatory of Music) led an edgy, incisive traversal of the opening Allegro con spirito from Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. More choice Dvorak brought the final two movements of the Czech master’s lovely Wind Serenade in D minor, Op.44, played with superb articulation, remarkable clarity of texture and blazing lyricism. Oboists Geoff Sanford and Alison Chung (both from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music) and clarinetists Benjamin Davis (from the University of Michigan) and Brian Gnojek (a freelancer) were especially impressive in the winding roulades and mesmerizing melodies of this wind masterpiece. 

A renowned Mozart scholar, Festival director Levin took center stage for the Salzburg genius’ Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, K.452 at the June 14 concert. Playing with bright, nimble pizzazz, Levin brought elegance and dazzling showmanship to Mozart’s graceful keyboard writing. Mozart considered this score one of his best pieces and it was hard not to agree when played with such verve by the pure toned, homogeneously balanced wind ensemble of Vogel, Neidich, Morelli and Wekre. 

Webern’s String Quartet (1905) comes from the composer’s pre-atonal period. The spirit of Mahler (particularly the mood of the 9th Symphony and the final song of Das Lied van der Erde) seems to haunt this poignant, emotional score. Often the music speaks in a whisper. Violinist James Buswell (a faculty member at Boston’s New England Conservatory), Agostini, German based violist Barbara Westphal and Greensmith played the score with exquisite shading, achieving the most dulcet of pianissimos.

Brahms’ String Quintet No.1 in F Major is another infrequently heard work. A sunny, playful score awash in Brahmsian melodies, the final movement features complex, rapid fire fugal writing that was played with virtuoso zeal by Buswell, Agostini, Dunham, Westphal and Greensmith. The sheer intensity and drive of this performance were riveting. Playing an unusually large viola, Westphal produced streams of dark, perfectly focused tone that soared through the opera house. The cheers and enthusiasm this performance engendered were well deserved.

Student participant concerts at Holley Hall on June 12 and 14 produced a plethora of wonderful music making. A chamber version of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was an utter delight, sensuous yet wonderfully intimate. The impressionistic languor of Charles Martin Loeffler’s L’Etang (The Pond) was rendered with a kaleidoscopic array of colors and hues by pianist Pauline Yang, oboist Kristin Kall and the spectacular violist Luke Fleming (from New York’s Juilliard School). Pianist Jun-Young Cho (from Juilliard) exhibited high voltage, competition winning playing in a brilliant, fiery version of the Rondo alla Zingarese from Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, Op.25. Yang’s voluminous, high powered pianism ignited the Allegro from Brahms’ Piano Trio No.2 in C Major, Op.87. Stunning, brilliantly executed performances of movements from Bartok’s String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 spotlighted the impressive string contingent. Pianist Henry Kramer’s large scale, powerhouse thunder brought the Allegro ma non troppo from Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major to vivid life. A welcome revival of Spohr’s Grand Nonetto, Op.31 was elegantly spun. One only hopes there will be a place for all of these talented young musicians on America’s musical horizon. For audiences, faculty and student participants alike, the Sarasota Music Festival proved a memorable experience. 

The final weekend of the Sarasota Music Festival features an Artists Showcase concert at Holley Hall on June 19 with flutist Leone Buyse in works by Debussy and Edgar Varese, cellist Ronald Leonard playing Beethoven’s Sonata in C Major, pianist John Perry essaying Brahms’ Intermezzi and violinist James Buswell in Eugene Ysaye’s Obsession Sonata. A June 20 chamber concert at the Sarasota Opera House brings a performance of Messiaen’s monumental Quartet for the End of Time and works by Puccini and Beethoven. The Festival concludes on June 21 with an orchestral concert led by Dante Anzolini who recently made a highly successful debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Bizet’s Symphony in C Major shares the bill with the Florida premiere of Richard Sortomme’s Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra (2007) with Robert Vernon (principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra) as soloist. John Perry solos in Rachmaninoff’s popular Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor. For more information, see

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