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Fascinating Programming

A report from the Sarasota Music Festival 2007,


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 21 June). 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 (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 Phantasiestücke, 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.

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Copyright © 10 July 2007 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA


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