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Well-versed virtuoso

Joseph Silverstein's career as violin virtuoso, conductor, teacher and orchestra leader has led to his time-honored status as a guest at the Sarasota Music Festival.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 6, 2002


photo
[Publicity photo]
Violinist and conductor Joseph Silverstein is working with student musicians and playing concerts at the Sarasota Music Festival.

There's something about Bach that inspires awe in even the most accomplished musicians.

Take Joseph Silverstein, one of classical music's finest artists, a virtuoso violinist and first-rate conductor. At 70, he has been playing Bach for more than six decades. Yet Silverstein had qualms when he embarked on a project to record what he calls one of "Bach's musical encyclopedias," the three sonatas and three partitas for solo violin.

"It had a very long gestation period," Silverstein said. "As you work on these pieces, every day you come up with something new, and you say, "Oh, my gosh, I'm going to record this!' Six months later, I'm going to listen to it and say, "Oh, why did I do that?' The differences are very subtle, but they're very important to you as a performer. So there is a last-minute reluctance before you put them on the disc."

Silverstein need not worry. Recorded in a synagogue in Great Barrington, Mass., where the violinist-conductor has a home, his two-CD set on the Image Recordings label is a delight, a graceful and expressive journey through some of Bach's most abstract music.

Although Silverstein, former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony, is an instinctively romantic violinist and plays a so-called modern instrument (a 1742 Guarneri del Gesu), he points to the influence of baroque performance practices as crucial in the evolution of his approach to the Bach sonatas and partitas.

"My whole concept of tempo relation in Bach has changed quite substantially over the years as a result of playing a baroque instrument," he said. "The slow movements have become somewhat quicker. The bow technique is somewhat lighter. Certain bow strokes that were considered stylistically proper in the mid 20th century have now been discarded in favor of strokes that more closely approximate the natural stroke of the baroque instrument and bow."

This month, Silverstein will share his insights into the works of Bach and others with student musicians at the Sarasota Music Festival, where he is a longtime faculty guest artist. He'll give master classes, coach chamber music ensembles and play in concerts June 13-15 and 20-22.

Silverstein is a familiar figure in Florida, especially since completing a 15-year tenure as music director of the Utah Symphony. He is a frequent guest conductor of the Florida Orchestra as well as acting music director of the Fort Lauderdale-based Florida Philharmonic. As a concertmaster turned conductor, he has an advantage.

"I think that any instrumentalist other than a pianist has immediate credibility with orchestral musicians," he said. "There's a comfort level that's very, very nice. If you're a string player and can provide comments that are relevant to the players of a large segment of the orchestra, then life is a lot easier."

Silverstein stepped in to lead the Florida Philharmonic on an interim basis last year after music director James Judd abruptly resigned in a struggle with musicians, who wanted more control over repertoire. "It was complicated, but I tried to bring a certain amount of stability to the situation," Silverstein said.

In May, the Philharmonic announced it had narrowed the list of candidates for music director to five: Marco Armiliato, Roberto Minczuk, Asher Fisch, David Lockington and Christopher Wilkins. All will guest conduct next season.

Last week, Arthur M. "Trey" Devey was named executive director of the Philharmonic, filling a post that had been vacant since December. Devey, 30, currently president and executive director of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra in New York, will arrive in September.

"If they really get themselves together, I think the Philharmonic has an excellent future," Silverstein said. "They have the players, and with the density of the population in that part of Florida, there should be the potential for a very successful orchestra."

Neither the Florida Orchestra nor the Florida Philharmonic has a home hall. In the Tampa Bay area, the orchestra commutes among the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Mahaffey Theater at Bayfront Center. The Philharmonic plays in four halls from Miami to West Palm Beach.

"One of the problems is the sonic identity of the orchestra," Silverstein said. "The great orchestras have all become very much an expression of the room that they play in all the time. An orchestra develops a sonic comfort because of that identity. But the flexibility of the Florida Orchestra, for example, in adapting to the acoustical properties of those three halls, is really admirable. They keep getting better at it all the time."

Music preview

The Sarasota Music Festival began this week and continues through June 22. Major concerts are at 4:30 p.m. Thursday in Holley Hall and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Sarasota Opera House. Tickets: $17-$35. (941) 953-3434 or toll-free 1-800-287-9634.

'subUrbia': Prepare for an event

There's no in-between, lukewarm reaction to Eric Bogosian. You either love or hate his plays about junkies, wheeler-dealers, hipsters, panhandlers and type-A loudmouths, as he acknowledges on his Web site (www.ericbogosian.com): "I write for an audience that likes what I like, reads what I read, thinks about the things I think about. In many ways, this puts me in opposition to the people who go to the theater generally. And in fact, most people who share my values and concerns, who have my sense of humor don't go to the theater at all. I find most theater very static, meant to be "read' by a sophisticated theater crowd. Oddly, the theater we revere from the Greeks to Shakespeare wasn't like this at all. The theater I revere is an event. I try to write, whether it be solo work or ensemble, so that the event can happen with this particular group of actors and this particular audience on this particular night. I'm not hip, my audiences are not hip -- but we're not the audience you usually find in the theater. I write for my "tribe,' you either get it, or you don't."

Except for Bogosian himself, nobody does Bogosian better than Paul Potenza, who has performed two of his solo plays, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead. For the Jobsite Theater production of Bogosian's subUrbia, Potenza directs a cast that includes, from left, Ryan McCarthy, Dan Khoury and Grace Santos.

subUrbia, set in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, opens Friday and runs through June 23. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday in Shimberg Playhouse of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $12 and $15. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045.

Chamber music concerts

Amy Schwartz Moretti is among the musicians playing this weekend in the final Phoenix chamber music program of the season. Moretti, concertmaster of the Florida Orchestra, will team with the orchestra's principal cello, James Connors, in Kodaly's Duo for Violin and Cello. Joined by pianist Svetozar Ivanov, they'll also play trios of Haydn and Schubert. Concerts are at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and 3 p.m. Sunday at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, 3501 San Jose St., Tampa. Admission is $8 and $10 at the Dali (727) 823-3767, free at the church (813) 253-6047.

Deeper commitment

When a trendy New York restaurant is full and not taking reservations, it's "fully committed," in the words of the out-or-work actor whose job it is to fend off desperate callers who simply must have a table. Kraig Swartz stars as reservation clerk Sam and 36 other characters in the Asolo Theatre production of Becky Mode's comedy.

Fully Committed, in Cook Theatre, has been extended through June 16. Tickets: $27 and $29. (941) 351-8000, toll-free 1-800-361-8388, www.asolo.org.

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