Playing Tourist in Sarasota; A Farewell to Leif Bjaland

By Megan McDonald April 5, 2011

Ricardo Graziano as the title role in Sarasota Ballet's Prodigal Son. Photo by Frank Atura.

I spent last weekend in a tropical resort with a bustling downtown and a vibrant arts community.

OK, I actually stayed in Sarasota. But I saw the city though the fresh eyes of a visitor, as I took my cousins from Connecticut on a guided tour. In the process, I fell in love with Sarasota all over again.

Minutes after they arrived from the airport late Friday night, we drove to Epicure for some pasta and pizza.  Main Street and Palm Avenue were filled with excited audience members who had just watched the Sarasota Ballet at the Opera House. Soon, some people I knew wandered in from the Van Wezel, where they’d seen the Sarasota Orchestra.

At one point, my cousin’s wife grabbed my hand. “That man with the moustache over there looks just like Dick Smothers,” she said, referring to the well-known comedian.

“That is Dick Smothers,” I replied. “He lives here.”

Smothers and his party were sitting in the pulsating bar area of the restaurant, which has become a late-night hot spot.  For some reason, he stopped by our table as they left. “It’s fun in there, but too much like a disco for conversation,” he said.

Early Saturday morning, we were in downtown Sarasota again for the Farmers’ Market. I go there every Saturday for one purpose only: so people can “ooh” and “ahh” over Capone, my adorable Schnauzer, who gets to sniff about 50 other dogs in one concentrated area.

Capone is always a hit at the downtown Sarasota farmer's market.

But this time, I actually bought fruit and vegetables and flowers for a Sunday brunch I was throwing in my guests’ honor. Then we enjoyed the gorgeous weather from an outdoor table at Café Americano  (my cousins were impressed that the waitress greeted Capone by name).

Our next stop was Ted Sperling Park on South Lido. A few weeks ago, I had attended the dedication ceremony at which the park was renamed in honor of Sperling, a former city commissioner and ardent environmentalist. I had forgotten just how beautiful that site is, and I wanted to make sure my relatives experienced it.  We spent an hour walking the beach and wandering past sea oats. The Sarasota skyline gleamed, Oz-like, across Big Pass. Sailboats zipped back and forth, and my cousin snapped photographs of a blue heron taking flight.

I usually avoid Marina Jack’s because, well, it’s too touristy. But we had a delightful lunch in the open-air portion of the restaurant.  “This feels like we just got off a cruise ship in some glamorous Mediterranean port,” my cousin said as we enjoyed the view of the boats and Island Park.

We then wandered around my south-of-downtown neighborhood, and took a detour so my cousin could photograph the mansion that Katherine Harris is building in Hudson Bayou. Then I took the gang to one of my favorite restaurants, the Bijou Café, where I had the signature rack of lamb and they enjoyed the fresh halibut.

A few minutes before eight, we walked across the street to the Opera House for the ballet’s all-Balanchine program.  I had been bragging about the great strides the company has made in the past few years. My relatives get to see great dance in New York all the time, though, so I didn’t want to over-sell the troupe.

But they and I were dazzled by the thrilling performances in three very different Balanchine pieces.  Ricardo Graziano was particularly amazing in the title role of Prodigal Son.  But the women behind me , who had attended all three performances to see different casts, said Logan Learned was just as good in the same role the night before. That really speaks to depth this company possesses.

The program ended with the exuberant Who Cares?, danced with abandon to 16 Gershwin songs. And by the way, the whimsical backdrop depicting a New York skyline was created by the Asolo Rep’s scene shop.  A representative of the Balanchine Trust, in Sarasota to assist with the performances, said she had seen productions of Who Cares? all over the world, and could think of only one other backdrop that captured the spirit of the piece so well.









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After the performance, I was ready to crash, but my relatives wanted to sample more of that Sarasota nightlife.  “Can we go to that neat place with the onyx bar?” my cousin’s wife asked, referring to Café Palm at Media on Main.

So we ended our evening with some wine at the café, which was filled with a lively crowd of arts patrons and some students staring intently at their laptops. My cousins were impressed at the personal attention I got from the gregarious owner, Ralph Perna. I didn’t tell that that he’s that nice to everybody.


Tears were flowing in the audience and onstage after Sunday’s final 2010-11 Masterworks Series concert by the Sarasota Orchestra.  Joined by alto Jennifer Hines and singers from Key Chorale and Sarasota Young Voices, the orchestra gave a transcendent rendition of Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 3 in D Minor.

But the afternoon had an added sense of drama because conductor Leif Bjaland has announced that he is leaving. Though Bjaland will conduct a couple of Masterworks Series concerts next season, this spectacular performance summed up all that he has accomplished during the past 15 years.

The audience seemed to sense that this was an unofficial farewell ceremony.  The crowd roared as Bjaland came out for a bow after the performance, and the orchestra members behind him joined in the applause. A visibly emotional Bjaland, drenched in sweat, put his hand to his heart and took a long, deep bow, then waved as he slipped behind the curtain.

Backstage, the scene was just as emotional, as orchestra members lined up to embrace him. Paul Wolfe, the orchestra’s conductor emeritus, was there to pay his respects as well.  That was a perfect moment, I thought, as Bjaland built on Wolfe’s solid foundation and took this orchestra to great heights.  This concert marked the glorious end of an extraordinary era.

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