On Tuesday, the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami presents the 29th iteration of its Festival Miami, a monthlong series of concerts that covers the genre waterfront from Rachmaninov at his biggest to a tango ensemble, from a Brazilian jazz trio to a lone songwriter on a stage with a guitar.
As for the classical side of things – jazz, Latin music and contemporary pop also are represented in the festival that runs through Nov. 4 – there’s perhaps a stronger emphasis this year on new composition. Fresh classical always has been an important part of the festival, and it’s presented in a way that’s friendly and not forbidding, says the school’s dean, Shelly Berg.
“The way we mix it into our programming, the audiences really love it. We’re not setting ourselves up as something aloof,” Berg said.
The great American pianist Leon Fleisher, who studied with none other than Artur Schnabel as a boy, will open the festival with a talk moderated by UM’s Frank Cooper, and then appear Thursday at the head of the Frost Symphony Orchestra, conducting the Coriolan Overture of Beethoven and the Second Symphony of Rachmaninov.
He’ll also conduct a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 4 (in G, Op. 58) of Beethoven, with the winner of a student soloist competition, Ukrainian pianist Anastasiya Naplekova, who’s working on her doctorate at UM.
“Imagine the opportunity for a student to get to play a Beethoven concerto and work with Leon Fleisher,” Berg said, adding that the Frost Symphony, whose director is Thomas Sleeper, also will be a standout part of the festival.
“In the time that I’ve been here I’ve watched an absolute explosion in the quality of the symphony orchestra, and sometimes you really need that to get the world’s attention,” he said. “We have an absolutely top-notch symphony orchestra. They’re just terrific, so when people come to Festival Miami and hear the Frost Symphony, I think they’re going to be blown away.”
On Oct. 7, the Frost Wind Ensemble, led by Gary Green, welcomes one of the best-known American composers of our time, Pulitzer Prize-winning Jennifer Higdon, and the young Paul Dooley (who’s also getting performances of his Pomo Canyon Air later this season at concerts by the Atlantic Classical Orchestra on the Treasure Coast). Higdon’s Percussion Concerto will feature Svet Stoyanov, who leads UM’s percussion wing, and Dooley will be represented by the newly commissioned Point Blank.
“Gary Green has always been very careful about the music he selects to premiere with his wind ensemble, and we’ve had tremendous response in that music,” Berg said. “When you have the composers here, as we do for all the new works, then you have the opportunity for the composer to explain to the audience what they were thinking, what motivated them to compose the work, and also explain it to the performers.
“And so that gives the audience a more intimate connection,” he said.
Chamber music for winds is center stage on Oct. 14, when the bassoonist Luciano Magnanini, who is retiring from teaching this May, is joined by colleagues for a concert of music by Saint-Saens (the late Bassoon Sonata), Beethoven, Poulenc (the Sextet), and Piazzolla. Also on the program is a trio for oboe, bassoon and piano by Bill Douglas, an American pianist long associated with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, plus a world premiere: Sights and Sounds, for alto saxophone, wind quintet and piano, by Stephen Guerra, a UM professor. The soloist in Guerra’s work will be Dale Underwood.
Berg, a very fine jazz pianist himself, will be the pianist for the Douglas trio, which will draw on his jazz chops.
“Luciano wanted to perform with me on this program, and he said, ‘This piece might be good because it’s a classical piece, but it’s got some real jazz inflection in it that requires that knowledge,’” Berg said. “It’s a lovely piece, and it’s open to some improvisations.”
Guerra’s piece also has a jazz element, and will include improvisation from Richard Todd, UM’s horn professor, who also happens to be a top session man for Hollywood film scores, Berg said. “Usually if you hear a great French horn solo (at the movies), it’s Richard Todd,” he said.
New music is also on the agenda the following Sunday, Oct. 21, when two youth orchestras, the Greater Miami Youth Symphony and the South Florida Youth Symphony, separately play works by Dorothy Hindman, Lansing McLoskey, Charles Mason and Lawrence Moore. The two orchestras will combine for a new piece by Dennis Kam to close the evening.
Cuban-born pianist Santiago Rodriguez, who had to bow out of last year’s festival for reasons of illness, returns this year for a recital Oct. 12 of music by Chopin and Rachmaninov (both of their Second Sonatas, plus various preludes) and Latin music by Soler, Albeniz, Rene Touzet and Cuba’s beloved Ernesto Lecuona. On Oct. 13, the Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez, who has had an exciting international career that includes engagements at the biggest opera houses in the world, offers a solo recital of songs and arias, accompanied by pianist Thomas Jaber.
Wrapping up the festival and the classical portion is a Nov. 4 performance with the Master Chorale of South Florida, the Frost Chorale, the Singing Sons Boychoir and the Frost Symphony, of Carl Orff’s popular cantata, Carmina Burana.
Berg also will take part in the first concert of a two-program exploration Oct. 5 and 6 of the nuevo tango of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. JP Jofre, a contemporary master of the bandoneόn (which also was Piazzolla’s instrument) will be joined by Berg and chamber musicians including members of the Bergonzi Quartet and Tomas Cotik, a fellow Argentine who recently gave a series of all-Piazzolla concerts.
Piazzolla’s work has become hugely popular with classical artists, who find his adventurously harmonized pieces a good fit with their programming, often as encore material. One reason, of course, is the appeal of Piazzolla’s dark, moody melodies, such as you can hear in Oblivion, which Berg has recorded on three separate occasions. Berg will play the composer’s Grand Tango with cellist Ross Harbaugh on the Oct. 5 concert, and says Piazzolla’s “searingly beautiful melodies” that can work in classical and pop contexts help explain his current popularity.
“If you look at the history of American popular music, things catch on for their time. For instance, bossa nova caught on in the ’60s. It may be that tango, in its way, is in vogue right now,” he said.
Multidisciplinary approaches and crossover are central to UM’s mission, Berg said, and one example is in the Henry Mancini Institute, an entity associated with the late film and popular song composer that moved from Southern California to UM a couple years back and has had a big effect on the university’s curriculum.
“It’s created a sea change for our school. I alluded earlier to how great the (Frost) orchestra is now, and there’s a reason for that,” he said. “There’s a certain subset of great players that recognize that the world is wide, and have wide interests. And maybe they’ve done a degree at Juilliard or Eastman or the New England Conservatory, but they understand there’s a lot more they want to plug into and learn about, and know about.
“And for that subset, the best place in the country to come is the Frost School, where they can participate in the Mancini Institute. Because while they’re here they’ll continue to play Rachmaninov and Beethoven, like they’re playing next week, but they’ll also play real film scores for actual films … they’ll learn improvisation with (crossover violinist) Mark O’Connor … they’ll do world music, they’ll do television … They’ll get experience in all those worlds and gain experience that is going to help them in their careers and that they really like. That’s why they come here.”
The Mancini Institute Orchestra will be heard in the festival on Nov. 2, when it plays with singer and pianist Freddy Cole and guitarist George Benson, in a tribute to concert to the vocal legacy of Cole’s late older brother, Nat King Cole.
Full details about Festival Miami can be found here; the ticket hotline is 305-284-4940.