Gershwin and Ravel feature in upcoming Sarasota Orchestra performance

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Conductor JoAnn Falletta
Conductor JoAnn Falletta

Just before auditioning 100 potential bassoonists for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, music director JoAnn Falletta took time out to discuss her upcoming program with the Sarasota Orchestra.

“More than we ever imagined are coming to Buffalo,” the Grammy Award-winning conductor said. “An orchestra usually has just two (bassoonists). There are a lot of young musicians out there” who are eager to move to snowy Buffalo, which has enjoyed enviable stability even through the pandemic.

“That matters to young people,” Falletta said.

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She’ll lead the Sarasota Orchestra and piano soloist Aaron Diehl in Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F” and Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” next weekend.

Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto” is “truly one of the great American concertos,” said Falletta. “He wrote it as a proof to people that ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ wasn’t an accident. This piece is brilliantly written. It has complex orchestration; it’s fantastic.”

The work will showcase Aaron Diehl, an up-and-coming pianist who brings a unique affection for both jazz and classical idioms to the keyboard. Winner of the 2011 American Pianists Association Cole Porter Fellowship, he earned his bachelor of music degree from the Juilliard School. A 2016 performance of the Gershwin concerto with the New York Philharmonic earned high praise from the New York Times, which noted, “The roomy freedom of (his) playing in bluesy episodes was especially affecting. He folded short improvised sections into the score, and it’s hard to imagine that Gershwin would not have been impressed.”

Falletta has not performed before with Diehl.

“I’ve heard great things about him,” she said. “He’s a person who feels truly comfortable in the worlds of jazz and classical, as Gershwin did.”

Piano soloist Aaron Diehl will perform with the Sarasota Orchestra.
Piano soloist Aaron Diehl will perform with the Sarasota Orchestra.

The concert will open with Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” which the French composer wrote in 1908 as a suite for piano four-hands for the six- and seven-year-old children of close friends. He fully orchestrated it in 1911 as a ballet score and then an orchestral suite. It includes five short movements based on fairy tales from Sleeping Beauty to Tom Thumb.

Gershwin was a huge admirer of Ravel, said Falletta. When Ravel came to New York on a concert tour of his own works, Gershwin took him to jazz clubs in the city.

“He worked up the courage to say to Ravel, ‘Would you teach me, can I study with you?’” said Falletta. But Ravel encouraged Gershwin instead to focus on his own gifts, telling him, “‘You could only be a second-rate Ravel.’ They both completely admired the other.”

The “Mother Goose Suite,” she said, “is a favorite piece of mine, with the elegance and sensitivity and absolutely gorgeous orchestration. His way of writing for the orchestra, probably no one ever achieved that. There are solos all over, all the woodwinds, gorgeous solos. It’s a way to open up and show them off.”

The Rachmaninoff “Symphonic Dances” was composed in 1940 when the Russian composer, who had left Russia in 1917, was 67. Falletta described it as an “orchestral showpiece,” the last symphonic work he composed before he became too ill to write.

“It’s really one of my favorites, again very difficult, really dark in his way. It has a tremendous intensity to it.”

Falletta has led the Sarasota Orchestra in past concerts as a guest conductor.

“I’ve always been very impressed with them. The community loves music, loves the orchestra. (The musicians’) character is very expressive,” she said. “There’s a feeling of connection to the music and to the community.”

Concert preview

Masterworks: “Fairy Tales and Fireworks.” Sarasota Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta, guest conductor. 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27. Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets $35-$98. Classical Conversation, 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, Holley Hall, Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, 709 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets $11 advance, $16 at the door. 941-953-3434; sarasotaorchestra.org.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Gershwin and Ravel feature in upcoming Sarasota Orchestra performance