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From little festival to musical fixture

At age 40, the Sarasota Music Festival has come into its own, and the man who started it as a chance for a little summer music remains at the helm of a tour de force.

Published May 30, 2004

The Sarasota Music Festival is 40 years old this year, and Paul Wolfe has been in charge since the beginning. The original idea was modest.

"It was just a matter of having some music in the summer," said Wolfe, who was the relatively new music director of Sarasota's Florida West Coast Symphony at the time. He had moved from New York, where as a violinist he had done everything from playing in the South Pacific orchestra on Broadway to making recordings with maestros such as Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Stokowski and Bruno Walter.

"It has gone by very fast," Wolfe, 78, said of the Sarasota festival. "The first year we didn't have any students. There were only five concerts. I just brought down some of my good friends from New York. The next year we made it two weeks and added a coaching component. The third year, students from conservatories and music schools got into the act, and we had three weeks. It has been three weeks ever since."

From such unpretentious roots, the festival has grown into a veritable institution. One measure of its stature is the more than 125 alumni who went on to become members of top American symphony orchestras such as those in Boston, Cleveland, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

There are 85 students this year in the three-week festival. They are coached by a faculty that includes classical stars such as pianist Robert Levin, violinist Ani Kavafian, flutist Carol Wincenc and the principal players of leading orchestras.

Many of the faculty artists have been coming to the festival for more than 20 years, including Levin, violinist James Buswell, cellist Ronald Leonard and horn player Froydis Ree Wekre.

The longest-running faculty artist is Joseph Silverstein, who was concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra before becoming a conductor. Wolfe remembers the violinist's arrival fondly.

"He walked into our orchestra rehearsal and said, "Do you need another fiddle player? I'll sit anywhere.' That's how Joe Silverstein and I sort of started, and he's been with us 36, 37 years."

Silverstein will be featured in the festival orchestra finale, on June 19, an all-Mozart concert capped by the 40th Symphony. He'll be the concertmaster and soloist in the Fifth Violin Concerto. Wincenc will be a soloist in the First Flute Concerto. Wolfe will conduct.

Why do the faculty artists keep coming back?

"If it was January, I'd say it's the weather, but in June, I can't claim that the weather does very much," Wolfe said. "We have marvelous students, so educationally it is very satisfying. Also, these players know each other, and they're in different places around the country, and they enjoy the chance to play with each other."

The Artist Showcase concerts on Thursday afternoon at Holley Hall are a good opportunity to hear faculty members. In the first one this week, Barbara Westphal, a superb violist, will be heard in an unusual work, Gyorgy Kurtag's Jelek, along with Buswell in a Kreisler showpiece for violin and clarinetist Charles Neidich in a Saint-Saens sonata.

This year, for the first time, the eminent pianist Claude Frank and his illustrious daughter, violinist Pamela Frank, are on the festival faculty. Claude will be in concerts June 17 and 18. Pamela is not performing, though she will teach.

There are a half-dozen student concerts, which are free; the first is on June 6. Students also perform a 30-minute program after the Friday night concerts.

"To my knowledge, this is the only festival in the world where the students determine their own program," Wolfe said. "Before they come here, they send us a list of pieces they would like to be involved in. When they get here, they form their own groups."

Faculty members choose the artists and repertoire for each student concert. The program is announced the day before the concert. In a typical student concert, there are 10 or so ensembles, playing short works, such as a movement from a Brahms chamber work.

"I would say, in general, the student concerts here are better than faculty concerts at a normal university with a music department," Wolfe said.

Festival concerts are played at the Sarasota Opera House. For many years, they were at the much larger Van Wezel Hall.

"We're not playing at Van Wezel because the faculty prefer the opera house," Wolfe said. "We save a considerable amount of money because the Van Wezel fees have gone up astronomically."

Wolfe, who retired as music director of the Florida West Coast Symphony in 1996, doesn't seem ready to relinquish his duties with the festival. Still, he is giving some thought to a succession strategy.

"It's a very complicated issue," he said. "It doesn't have to be a player the way I am, but it has to be somebody who is very, very knowledgeable. And it really should be somebody who lives here. All during the year there is so much to do, so many decisions to make. There are a couple members of the faculty I'm thinking of in terms of an associate artistic director, maybe next year, maybe two years from now."

In the meantime, Wolfe continues to relish making music. "I don't feel much different from the way I was at 25," he said.


The Sarasota Music Festival begins this week and runs through June 19. Artist Showcase Concerts are at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Holley Hall; $17, $23. Festival Concerts are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Sarasota Opera House; $20-$36. Six student concerts are free; the first one is at 7:30 p.m. June 6 at Holley Hall. Festival passes allowing admission to rehearsals, master classes and lectures are available. 941 953-3434;

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