In the first week of December, the Charles Ringling mansion at New College of Florida was the site of two stunning evenings. The Mistletoe Ball arrived first, with all its bells and whistles. It’s the oldest black-tie event in town and may still be, after all these years, the most glittering party in a tent for hundreds of people flushed with Christmas fervor that you’re ever likely to see. The gowns, the jewelry—honestly, we didn’t know which way to look.
And then, only a few days later, came something altogether different—a party so intimate and cozy and special you’d think you were back in the glamorous ‘20s. La Musica International Chamber Music Festival, which is returning in April for its 21st season (at St. Thomas More Church instead of the Sarasota Opera House, because of renovations there), offered Sonata a Due, its traditional winter taste of spring delights to come. A just-the-right-length concert and dinner on the bay were an irresistible combination.
It was chilly the night of Sonata a Due (that’s “sonata for two,” in case you don’t know your Italian), and so much fun to park on the lawn and approach the glowing building, with the sun going down in the bay behind it, just the way guests must have done long ago when the Ringling mansion was a home and not part of New College. Now Jeffrey Thomas, director of campus bay scheduling and the Sainer Pavilion, is the gracious host of this evening. Cocktails were served on the terrace in the waning light. Red poinsettias were everywhere. The concert was in the music room, followed by a delicious dinner in the hall at the very civilized hour of 8:15 p.m. The whole glorious package made many of us nostalgic for the simpler, more elegant pleasures of life, before TV, movies, and the Internet, when you could just sit for a while and listen. SARASOTA editors Ilene Denton, Kay Kipling and I—taking in the remarkable sonatas of Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms, performed by the stellar team of Derek Han and Federico Agostini—imagined that we were country ladies in the time of Pride and Prejudice. Magic was in the air.
The idea of an international music festival in Sarasota was the inspiration of Piero Rivolta. It came about in connection with the Historic Asolo Theater, which was brought here from Asolo, Italy, and installed in the Ringling Museum complex. Rivolta was drinking wine with pianist Derek Han, who is now the associate director of La Musica, and was reminded of Asolo, Italy. He said, “You know, what this town needs is a good chamber music festival,” and Han agreed. Their vision was to make a bridge across the Atlantic, bringing together European and American artists from different musical traditions, and combining the two in a new home to which they would return like the birds every spring. And so La Musica began over two decades ago. It flourished, and finally returned to the now-restored Historic Asolo only a few days before the dinner at the Charles Ringling home.
I was almost prepared for the exquisite experience by La Musica’s dragon lady, Sally Faron, who has been with the organization almost from its inception and is its only full-time employee. When I met her for a latte at the Americano Café at Five Points, it was another kind of going back—this time a return to precious girls’ school days where nothing in the world mattered but English, music, and good manners. Math wasn’t really “in” then, and you had to wear maroon bloomers.
Sally is a woman of generous proportions and flinty eyes that can stare you down or crinkle up with humor, but that never waver from their objective of singing La Musica’s praises. You can just see her educating gaggles of girls and managing their sometimes-difficult parents, which was what she did before coming to Florida with her anthropologist husband. (For all we know, he may be studying us now.) With a few saucy expletives, Sally wanted me to get things straight: “This is not a social organization. We don’t do balls or dress up.”
Patti and John Quirk, who sat at my table at Sonata a Due along with Bart and Sadie Tryon, said the same thing. La Musica is a family of passionate music lovers. Some who go every year are musicians, or former musicians. They bring the scores with them to follow along at all the open rehearsals. Other fans don’t know their Rachmaninoff from their Mozart, or the period from which they came, but could care less. They like the atmosphere—not just hearing the music as one would at a normal kind of concert, but actually coming to know the artists and following their lives over the years and living the music with them. You don’t often get to see computer geniuses at work, or actors, writers, composers. But in rehearsals at the Mildred Sainer Pavilion on the New College campus, you can see how chamber music actually comes together, which is not like an orchestra at all. Chamber music has no conductor, so there’s a special democratic feeling when artists work on a piece and share their thoughts on how the music should be brought out, Sally told me.
Of course, in Europe in the old days, it was very chic for the upper crust to commission works of art and music for display in private homes. Huge orchestras played in concert halls in big cities that could support them. In little castles and manor houses, only a few instruments could fill music rooms with glorious sound. Intimacy was the word, and it still is. Commissioning by wealthy individuals occurred on this side the pond, too. This season, La Musica will celebrate Stravinsky’s 125th birthday with a special composition commissioned by our very own John Ringling, Circus Polka.
At the intimate Due evening, board members and patrons like David and Jacqueline Morton, Gene and Helene Noble, and Frederick and Terri Derr glowed with excitement for the new season to come. Fred is the wine expert, and Piero says the cabernet keeps improving. Ann Cameron was there without Rick. He had a business meeting and was sorry the next day. Charles and Mimi Wood and Jack and Isabelle Wright looked like they were having the best time. The divine Gloria Moss went around selling poinsettias for five dollars each and told people they couldn’t go home until all were sold. I bought one and still have it.
La Musica is on from April 10-22, in residence at New College; and there are pre-concert lectures, a party at the Rivoltas’ to meet the musicians, and special performances for third-graders at Van Wezel, as well as rehearsals at Pelican Cove and Lakewood Ranch with artistic director Bruno Giuranna. With a click, you can hear 13 minutes of its magic on La Musica’s Web site, www.lamusicafestival.org. Listening to it gave me the warm feeling of that special evening all over again.
Leslie Glass is a playwright and the author of 14 novels, including the best-selling crime series featuring the NYPD’s April Woo.