Sizzling in the Summer

By Megan McDonald June 7, 2011

The talented Asiya Korepanova drew a heartfelt standing ovation from the crowd at the Sarasota Music Festival last Saturday night.

For the past three years, I’ve  headed north by Memorial Day, so I’ve missed what used to be one of my summertime highlights, the Sarasota Music Festival.

So I was excited to be in the near-capacity audience at the Sarasota Opera House Saturday for a festival concert that has to rank among the most thrilling it its 47-year history.

The featured soloists in these orchestral concerts are usually members of the distinguished festival faculty. But this time, a student, Russian pianist Asiya Korepanova, was in the spotlight, performing an exquisite rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.

Chills up my spine may be a terrible cliché, but that’s exactly what I experienced during the piece’s most famous section, the delicate D flat major variation.  I’ve never seen an audience so totally mesmerized by a performance. I didn’t notice a cough or a shuffle during the 25-minute piece, and at its conclusion the standing ovation was immediate and intensely felt. The gracious Korepanova responded with a long encore, a fantasy on The Blue Danube, that brought another round of cheers.

The students in the festival orchestra, conducted by the esteemed veteran Joseph Silverstein, were also astonishingly good for their tender age, both in the Rachmaninoff and in Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8.

The festival’s fate has hung in the balance in the last few years. At one point, the Sarasota Orchestra, which presents the event, announced the festival would shut down because of declining ticket sales. Only a last-minute grant from the Kaiserman Foundation kept it alive.

I hope that a concert like Saturday’s will convince the orchestra’s board that the festival is still a vital part of Sarasota’s cultural life, and deserves continued support.  How fortunate we are to have 60 of the top music students in the country (and a few from abroad) in our midst for three weeks, studying and performing with renowned faculty artists.

True, problems still exist.  Only a few hundred showed up for Friday’s opening chamber-music concert. Chamber music is always a harder sell than the orchestral concerts, particularly in the summer when many snowbirds like me are usually gone. Of course, 20 years ago, the festival’s chamber-music concerts used to draw nearly 1,000 on occasion. But I’m guessing the audience for that genre is much narrower than it used to be, even in a classical-music stronghold like Sarasota.

Some critics have complained that the festival has become too predictable and safe. But on Saturday night, the venerable Silverstein and an emerging young Russian with star potential proved that magic can still happen.

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