By William Littler
SARASOTA, Fla. – Permit me, if you will, a personal anecdote:
A few frigid Januaries ago, during its six-city, thermometer-inspired Florida tour, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra set up chairs on the stage of Sarasota’s improbably purple multi-purpose hall, the Van Wezel, popularly known as the purple cow.
Boarding a bus the following morning, one of the orchestra’s violinists leaned across the aisle to your humble servant, who happened to be covering the tour for the Toronto Star, and asked, ”I wonder why they call it the purple cow?,” to which the ever-helpful scribe promptly responded, ”perhaps it is because people attend hoping to have a moooving experience.” The remark elicited from the rest of the orchestra – not for the first time in response to their guest’s observations – a collective groan.
Well, the purple cow accommodated its latest symphonic adventure on March 9, when the Chinese-American conductor Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Sinfonietta, led a three-item Masterworks program within its less than salubrious acoustical confines.
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall dates from the 1970s, a period when cities across the continent were still building performing arts facilities with one eye on the box office and the other on their fan-shaped movie house neighbors. It has since been renovated but apparently without significant acoustical improvement, a condition that still saddens the voice of Joseph McKenna, Sarasota Orchestra’s president and CEO for the past thirteen years.
“When I came to Sarasota,” he recalls, “I started to plan for a new hall. Then we ran into the economic collapse of 2007-08.” The orchestra has nevertheless continued to grow under McKenna’s stewardship, from a $4 million budget to today’s $7.5 million (the endowment currently stands at around $25 million) but, as he points out, ”a hall is the orchestra’s instrument. We need a new hall to reach our next stage of development. So far, we’ve never really heard the orchestra.”
Approaching the next stage, the orchestra recently appointed 41-year-old Anu Tali as the fifth music director since its founding in 1965. A petite, photogenic blonde who founded an orchestra in 1997 (the Nordic Symphony) with her sister Kadri in their native Estonia, she has led only two programs so far in Sarasota but has reportedly already generated a new level of excitement on both sides of the footlights.
Like its Florida counterparts, the Sarasota Orchestra is a less than year-round enterprise, with a 36-week season, including the accompaniment of Sarasota Opera’s fall production (during its four-opera winter season the company uses a nationally recruited orchestra of its own). But as anyone who heard its concert could testify, it is already a finer ensemble than a city of 50,000 people – or 300,000, if the population of the surrounding area is included – could reasonably be expected to support.
The program on March 9 opened with a five-minute curiosity, “Saibei Dance” from Saibei Suite No. 2, by the prolific Chinese-Canadian composer An-Lun Huang, one of those musical artifacts of China’s Cultural Revolution, full of folk tunes and colorful scoring characteristic of Rimsky-Korsakov’s classic treatise on orchestration.
Rimsky-Korsakov himself appeared on the program in the form of that giant bon-bon, as Sir Thomas Beecham would have called it, Scheherazade. A favorite showpiece for generations, it served on this occasion to identify the Sarasota Orchestra as home to a number of capable first-desk players, as well as an ensemble capable of producing a full yet reasonably transparent sonority.
With 41 players on full contract and an additional 32 drawn, as needed, from neighboring cities, it was also able to supply a respectable accompaniment to a stylish reading of the Ravel G Major Concerto by the distinguished French pianist Jean-Philippe Collard. Denied the supporting resonance a more sympathetic hall could have provided, Collard’s piano tone sounded thinner and drier than usual, but the elegance of his playing easily survived.
Mei-Ann Chen conducted all three works with a vocabulary of arm gestures worthy of a Don Quixote windmill and yet without pushing her players into fits of exaggeration. Virtually everything was kept under control and didactically correct – a tribute, perhaps, to her doctorate in conducting from the University of Michigan.
Like David Greilsammer and Carl St.Clair before her and Tito Muñoz and Philip Mann after her, she is part of a transitional season primarily in the hands of guest conductors. As for the seasons ahead, CEO McKenna sees them as steps toward Sarasota’s dream of a hall that is neither purple nor cow-like (whatever that means). ”When the dream of an arts organization dies,” he says, ”the end is near.”
William Littler, veteran music columnist of The Toronto Star, also teaches at the Royal Conservatory of Music and is co-author of a recent history of Toronto’s principal concert hall, Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait.