MUSIC REVIEW: Anu Tali leads thrilling dawn of an era as new Sarasota Orchestra director
If Friday night’s Sarasota Orchestra concert had not been the debut of Anu Tali as its fifth music director, it would simply have been an extraordinary opening of the 65th season of Florida’s oldest and proudest professional orchestra. Yet, with the highly anticipated entrance of the petite and powerful Tali, we were introduced to the dawning of a new era, quite literally, in the form of Estonian composer Heino Eller’s “Koit (Dawn).”
It's tempting to imagine an overnight transformation of the orchestra based solely on the experience of Tali’s earlier performances leading the Sarasota musicians, but certainly we heard a marked change in a fully polished sound due largely to a new depth and range from the strings.
Eller’s tone poem depicting the natural phenomenon of light breaking through darkness was tenderly painted by whisper soft strings and solo oboe in twilight reverie. Other winds, horns, and soon a bassoon solo over a timpani roll called forth life, until the entire orchestra emerged full-bodied into a sound not unlike Debussy or Ravel, but infused with a more rustic Baltic vigor.
Trained in St. Petersburg, Russia, as well as in Tallinn, Estonia and Stockholm, Sweden, Tali developed an affinity for the Russian masters, clearly present in the riveting display of virtuosity and drama in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43,” featuring piano soloist Lukás Vondrácek. Long popular with audiences because of its expressive diversity, these variations give more than a nod to the myth that Paganini sold his soul to the devil in exchange for superhuman virtuosity.
The speed and precision of highly technical passages from both orchestra and soloist felt dangerous, on the edge of insanity even, as Vondrácek played nose nearly to the keyboard and Tali jabbed her intentions for the orchestra. In the next moment, a tender, elegiac melody gushed with subtleties of phrase and dynamics erasing the previous possession, only to return to a demonic flurry in the next variation. Vondrácek performed throughout with a driving virtuosity and musical finesse. It was a thrill ride resulting in an explosion of audience enthusiasm.
Entering the folkloric world of Antonin Dvorák, Tali emphasized the new beauty of this orchestral voice in his Symphony No 7 in D Minor, Op. 70, which deserves to be heard more than it is. Tali conveyed a clear vision for the dramatic outline of this symphony, carefully pacing the darker, searching character of the music with pastoral conversations among voices in the orchestra.
Sculpting the sound without baton in the Adagio, Tali brought out a delicious fluidity. Then again, with baton in hand, she encouraged the dancing impulse of the Scherzo’s cross-rhythms and ebullience. By the finale, we were sold on this symphony well-told with flair and a final triumph of all that is good in the world.
She had us at the dawn, but Tali returned to the podium for the ultimate feel good encore, a flashy rendition of Johannes Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 6.” With a hand on her heart, having acknowledged nearly every individual musician in the orchestra, Tali beamed as she accepted the long ovation welcoming her officially to Sarasota.
MASTERWORKS SERIES: DAWNING OF A NEW SEASON. Sarasota Orchestra. Anu Tali, music director. Lukas Vondracek, piano. Reviewed Nov. 8 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Additional performances at 8 p.m. Nov. 9 and 2:30 p.m. Nov. 10. Tickets $30-$84. 953-3434; www.SarasotaOrchestra.org.