Musical Musings

Sarasota Music Festival's Inspiring Light Burns Brightly

A Blog by Kerry Smith

by Kerry Smith, Director of Artistic Planning

In 2019, I briefly experienced for my first time the energy and artistry that the Sarasota Music Festival (SMF) brings every year in June. I had just been hired as Sarasota Orchestra's Director of Artistic Planning and caught a few rehearsals and performances before the festival came to a close. I was able to visit with one of my former teachers, violist Jutta Puchhammer-Sédillot, and hear her play for the first time since I was in graduate school. I also experienced the magic of Jeffrey Kahane and Robert Levin performing Mozart’s Concerto No. 10 for two pianos. Little did I know that it would be two more years until I heard any kind of activity representing SMF as the globe was about to be hit by the COVID-19 pandemic just seven months later. 

In June 2020, the silence in Sarasota was deafening. SMF’s programming last summer was dedicated to the major anniversary of the 19th amendment and would have showcased an unprecedented number of female composers and performers at the festival. In its place, several of our faculty and 2020 fellows came to our aid for a number of digital projects, but the lack of live performance could not be ignored, and we all grieved the cancellation of this special summer. 

Festivals hold special importance in the lives of artists. For students and young people, fellowship programs such as the one in Sarasota provide an important meeting of the minds. Often they will be inspired by new ideas and challenged with perspectives they have not yet considered. A few weeks at a festival can often be as valuable as a semester in college. Equally as important, participants develop personal relationships—friendships, mentorships, even romantic relationships—that they will hold dear for the rest of their lives. 

This past week, we were able to present a “reimagined” festival comprising four performances from Angelo Xiang Yu, Clive Greensmith, Angie Zhang, and the Calidore String Quartet; and a lecture-recital from our leader Jeffrey Kahane. Each program was a revelation in itself, and one could sense that each artist was dipping their toe back into their lives as performers. Rather than waxing poetic on the merits of each individual performance, I want to focus on the very final program of the 2021 festival featuring the Calidore String Quartet and Jeffrey Kahane. 

Calidore String QuartetThe program featured two works: the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, and the Mendelssohn String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80. I have been lucky enough to hear the Calidore String Quartet perform the Mendelssohn Op. 80 three times in the past five years: once in Southern California, once in New York City, and finally Saturday night in Sarasota. Mendelssohn wrote this string quartet after the sudden, tragic death of his sister Fanny, and the quartet vacillates between persistent harmonic tension and the most exquisitely beautiful lyrical passages. The work ends with a flourish, and the audience jumped to a very deserved standing ovation for the quartet. 

Calidore String Quartet in rehearsal with Jeffrey Kahane

Behind the scenes: The Calidore String Quartet rehearses with SMF Music Director Jeffrey Kahane.

Although the Schumann Quintet was first on the program, I thought the performance really reflected the intangible quality of festival collaborations and was the perfect piece for the return to live performance. The last movement, “Allegro ma non troppo,” was particularly special to witness this weekend. Schumann commits to a high-energy, high-concept finale and keeps all of the players busy, especially once the movement hits the fugato passages. The moment in the performance that made my heart swell was when the opening theme of the “Allegro brillante” returns at the end of the movement. When Jeffrey played that theme, not only did a voice in my head say, “We’re home!” but I saw a knowing, happy look passed around the quartet—they seemed to be thinking the same. What more perfect an aural statement for a festival that represents a return to performances?

The Calidore String Quartet and Jeffrey KahaneA standing ovation for the Calidore String Quartet with Jeffrey Kahane!

The Sarasota Music Festival is not the same without the fellows and faculty, but the 2021 festival served the community as several flickers of candlelight in the darkness. We are so grateful to the artists who traveled to Sarasota to help us return from the pandemic, and we look forward to what 2022 will bring when we can be together again.

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