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Review: Sarasota Orchestra presents Gershwin, Ravel, Rachmaninoff

Sarasota Herald-Tribune logo Sarasota Herald-Tribune 3/1/2022 Gayle Williams
Conductor JoAnn Falletta © Cheryl Gorski/Sarasota Orchestra Conductor JoAnn Falletta

Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta, once a contender for music director of the Sarasota Orchestra, reminded us again of the vast cinematic realms she can mold with an orchestra. 

Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of the piano suite of "Five Children’s Pieces" from “Ma Mère l’Oye” ("Mother Goose") is a tightly focused close-up. Each piece, meticulously constructed for heightened sensory effect, requires a delicate balance of perfectly placed elements of tonal color. Solo moments were strewn across the orchestra, each admirably presented. However, special note to Scott Radloff for the rare color of a contrabassoon solo.

More: Gershwin and Ravel feature in upcoming Sarasota Orchestra performance

Though not as famous as his "Bolero" or “Daphnis and Chloe," these five pieces clearly illustrate Ravel’s mastery of orchestral color.  It is likely the principal reason that George Gershwin asked Ravel for lessons while in Paris after accepting the commission for what would be his "Piano Concerto in F." Both Igor Stravinsky and Ravel refused his request, unwilling to tamper with Gershwin’s unique musical voice. Some have quoted Ravel, after asking how much Gershwin earned the previous year from his music, saying “It is I who should study with you!” 

That would not have worked either, but hearing the two composers’ output side by side highlights the genius of both. Aaron Diehl, a noted composer and jazz pianist with considerable classical training, pulled out an impressive performance of Gershwin’s concerto which recreates the bustle and vibe of jazz-era New York. 

Unlike Ravel, there are no minute delicacies here unless you count the smoky blues trumpet solo of the second movement. Even within a classical framework, Gershwin paints with a broad brush of lush strings and winds often sounding like his Broadway show scores, though with far more sophisticated use of a battery of percussive instruments. We could also appreciate the jazz rhythms and runs these able orchestral musicians tossed out in the finale, including a jazzy riff from concertmaster Daniel Jordan. 

This is not an overly demanding showpiece for the pianist either, but it does take the ability to honor both the jazz and classical elements in equal measure. Piano soloist Aaron Diehl easily delivered the score with a sensitivity for the collaborative effort and the technique for florid passages to make it seem easy.   

Diehl’s encore, unannounced, seemed to be one of his own compositions. Moody, atmospheric, it gave us a taste of who The New York Times calls “a composer worth watching.” 

When the orchestra returned to the stage with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s "Symphonic Dances, Op. 45," it was clearly their time to let loose. As Rachmaninoff’s last major composition before his death in 1943, Dances wove in references to earlier works while leaning forward into form and harmonic adventures.  

Each movement presented a varied array of characters and colors, balletic in a sense, but filled with that hot-blooded Slavic romance for which Rachmaninoff is known today.  

The lyric beauty of the first dance interior was the result of interwoven woodwind solos oboe, clarinet, English horn, flute, bass clarinet with ample billows of strings, harp, and piano. Touches here and there of chant and church bells did not quell a rush of heavy-footed strides and a hint of Prokofievian sarcasm.  

The second dance, to quote the brilliant program notes by Betsy Hudson Traba, had “sneering brass,” led into flute acrobatics, and a gentle violin solo before resting into a misty-eyed nostalgic waltz which grew increasingly “hallucinogenic”.  Managing this devolution, Falletta kept all together, and by the far-ranging final dance, we got our shot of adrenaline and full-bodied Rachmaninoff. With the last rush to a ringing final shot, the orchestra had fulfilled its mission and the audience thanked them heartily with their applause.  

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Review: Sarasota Orchestra presents Gershwin, Ravel, Rachmaninoff

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