Well, as with any innovative series, there are up and down moments.
At the first of this season’s Sarasota Orchestra Chamber Soiree concerts, both aspects were in evidence. The participation of the Sarasota Brass Quintet, playing Enrique Crespo’s arrangements of familiar spirituals, was swinging and pleasurable.
Challenge was absent in these skillful versions of such standards as “The Battle of Jericho,” “Nobody Knows (The Trouble I’ve Seen)” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” but the music and the performance were tonally rich and lyrical.
Joaquin Turina composed a seldom-played selection, “The Prayer of the Bullfighter,” which was skillfully presented by the Sarasota String Quartet.
Although this may have been typical programmatic music, there was little to justify violinist Daniel Jordan’s introductory implication that we would hear some strong comments from the bull. For whatever reason, this confrontation had fewer snorts and grunts than we had been led to expect.
However, the lyrical moments portraying the ascent of the bullfighter to, presumably, heaven were often sumptuous.
A small chamber orchestra then took the stage to perform the Arnold Schoenberg orchestration of Gustav Mahler’s massive settings of “Songs of the Wayfarer,” guest-conducted by Dirk Meyer and sung by Jason Collins.
This version of Mahler’s rich harmonies is edgy, often acerbic, but surprisingly effective. Collins delivered the often-heroic vocal lines with a big, if somewhat monochromatic tone. His commitment to the complex folkloric texts was obvious and, in the end, convincing.
So much for the “up” moments: The concert concluded with a disappointing, even irritating, performance of Aaron Copland's iconic arrangements of the iconic “Old American Songs: Set 2,” performed by mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert-Levitt, whose lovely voice was often completely covered by the sound produced by the full chamber orchestra. How this could have happened, even taking into account the problematic acoustics of Holley Hall, is hard to comprehend.
Gaissert-Levitt, singing in front of the orchestra, was often inaudible altogether.
At other times, the wonderful lyrics of these songs were obscured by the orchestra forces, particularly the brass, robbing us of the full emotional impact of these fine monuments of our culture.
The loss of the final vocal moments of “Zion’s Walls” and “At the River” will not easily be forgiven by this listener.
SARASOTA ORCHESTRA CHAMBER SOIREE
Song Fest 1: Folk Songs Sarasota Brass Quintet; Sarasota String Quartet; Sarasota Chamber Orchestra, Dirk Meyer, Conductor Blythe Gaissert-Levitt, mezzo-soprano; Jason Collins, tenor. Reviewed Sept. 19 in Holley Hall, Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center.