Sounds from Bion to Beyond

Bion Cantorum with R. Paul Urbanik, violin  and Ann Alton, cello

Nov. 17, 2017 at 7:00 PM

First Presbyterian Church, 2230 Hariet Street, Port Charlotte, FL

This concert features works inspired by the night and the cosmos, including Gjeilo’s  “Northern Lights”,  Wagner’s “Song to the Evening Star” for cello and piano, Barber’s “Sure on this Shining Night”,  and Stroope’s  beautiful “O, Notte” for choir, strings, and piano based on a poem by Michaelangelo

We will also play Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” arranged for Violin, Cello, and Piano. The movement Verano Porteno evokes a sultry summer night with the rasping of katydids, tango music from the dance halls, and the suggestion of steamy liasons in Buenos Aires’ ubiquitous telos (love-hotels).



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Chamber Accord “A Celebration of French Music”

                                              Nov. 3, 2016 at 7:30 PM, Bay Village at Sarasota


This varied program of music from the Baroque Era to the 20th Century will present our four musicians in different combinations. Pianist Gabrielius Alekna will perform solo works by Debussy including Clair de Lune and L’Isle Joyeuse.   Violinist Sean O’Neil will be featured in St. Saens’ dazzling Introduction and Rondo for violin and piano.  Sean O’Neil, Shawn Snider, and I will play some charming character pieces by Couperin that Bob Delfausse arranged for string trio.   The concert will open with  Delibe’s delightful “Flower Duet” from Lakme (also arranged by Bob Delfausse) and will culminate with Faure’s Piano Quartet No.1.  This monumental work was written during the end of a tempestuous relationship between Marianne Viardot (daughter of the singer Pauline Viardot) and Faure.


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Sean O’Neil, violin

Shawn Snider, viola

Ann Alton, cello

Gabrielius Alekna, piano



Bay Village is located at 8400 Vamo Rd, Sarasota, FL 3423   (941) 966-5611


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Chamber Accord Concert April 17, 2016 at 3:00 Englewood United Methodist Church

Chamber Accord


Chamber Accord was born of our wish to present a variety of  chamber music combinations in a single concert.  Repertoire includes string duo, string trio, duos and trios with piano, and piano quartet. Internationally acclaimed pianist Gabrielius Alekna and I have played together for many years. Last year we formed the group by teaming up with two wonderful Florida musicians, Sean O’Neil (concertmaster of the Venice Symphony) and Shawn Snider (principal violist of the Venice Symphony).  The April 17th concert features French works from the Baroque era to the 20th Century, including works by Couperin, St. Saens, Faure, Cras, and Messaien.

Although the music is all by French composers, there is a great variety of styles. We will have videos projected simultaneously to highlight some of the different influences.   Debussy’s  virtuoso piano piece L’Isle Joyeuse was inspired by Watteau’s painting Voyage to Cythera.   The brilliant piano writing depicts the ecstatic joy of the lovers on their enchanted isle.  Jean Cras’s String Trio is a little known gem. Cras, an officer in the French navy in the early 1900’s, imbued this delightful work with images from his home and his travels to  exotic ports. One can hear the sound of the waves, folk-tunes of his native Brittany, and lively Chinese melodies.  About three decades later Olivier Messaien composed his  Quartet for the End of Time while a prisoner of war in a Nazi camp.  Upon seeing the northern lights, he had a vision of the end of the world which inspired him to compose this otherworldly work.  We will end with Faure’s Piano Quartet No.1, a work beloved for its sumptuous harmonies and romanticism.

Sunday April 17 at 3:00 PM.

Click here for directions to Englewood United Methodist Church.

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Lake Placid Sinfonietta Season

Now that temperatures are in the 80’s here in Florida, thoughts of summer are creeping into my consciousness. In addition to dreaming of my favorite mountains, I’ve started to check out the programming for our upcoming Lake Placid Sinfonietta season. Interspersed with staple favorites such as the “Eroica”, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3, and Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, we’re doing some lesser known gems.  Walton’s Facade, Bruckner’s Quintet, Korngold’s Sextet, Martin’s Ballade for Flute and Orchestra  are all uniquely suited to our little orchestra.

 Facade will be a collaboration with Pendragon Theatre. The piece is set to poems by Edith Sitwell,  whose witty, rhythmic verse is interwoven with Walton’s jazzy score. The Adagio from Bruckner Quintet arranged for our full string section is lushly Romantic. In a somewhat similar vein, the sextet by Korngold is a youthful late-Romantic treasure written when he was seventeen.  Frank Martin’s Ballade,  alternately lyrical and virtuosic, will showcase our flutist Anne Harrow’s musicality and elegant technique.

Although I won’t mention the all the repertoire crammed into our intense six week season I urge you to check out the Sinfonietta website. The season will end on a more exuberant note with Pucinella and Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody featuring our concertmaster Daniel Szasz.

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Bach and Casals

When Reverend Roger Fritts asked me to play unaccompanied Bach for a recent sermon on Bach and Casals, I felt simultaneously eager and hesitant. Roger Fritts, minister at Unitarian Universalist Church in Sarasota, Florida is known for his thoughtful and compelling sermons, and I was happy to participate. Bach’s strong religious faith can be seen in most of his music, and even though the Six Cello Suites are secular works I feel most at home playing them in church.

At the same time my hesitancy in performing the suites is shared by many (if not most) professional cellists. We all have a complicated relationship with these works, usually feeling that there is always more to be discovered or that somehow we can’t do justice to their simple perfection.

I didn’t fall for them as a kid. By the time I started to practice them seriously, I was intimidated by the trend of stylistically correct Baroque performance, figuring I didn’t know enough about trills and the like. It didn’t help that my mother, a noted cello teacher, would occasionally remark on how she really loved the way someone played Bach. She professed to like my Bach, but looking back I probably didn’t trust myself enough.

My mother’s generation honored Pablo Casals as the greatest cellist ever, and felt immense gratitude to him for rediscovering the Bach Cello Suites. Casals started every day by playing Bach on the piano. For my mother, also Bach’s music was the most sublime and the most healing. During my youth, I preferred the lushness of the chamber music of Brahms and Schubert, and the symphonies of Mahler. It wasn’t until I started teaching that I began to appreciate the simple joy that my younger students found in Bach. They weren’t knowledgeable enough yet to be intimidated.

Bach cello suites eventually humble all cellists. Bach’s genius lies in his ability combine harmony and melody to into a single line to be played by the lowly cello (considered an inferior instrument at the time). Each of the six suites has a free form prelude (somewhat improvisatory) and a number of movements based on Baroque dance forms. We struggle to let the music speak for itself. There is great variety in the ways cellists approach performing these suites: spare and precise, Romantic and expressive, light and Baroque, as well as using a modern setup or gut strings and Baroque bow. Casals himself refused to make an edition of the suites because he continued to change his interpretation. It’s been said that different interpretations of Bach are like religions. You don’t criticize what you don’t understand.

With the passage of time I began to appreciate my mother more, seizing opportunities to play for her. I can picture her in her late years listening to my Bach with her eyes shut as if willing me to go deeper into the music.

Occasionally she might offer an opinion on tempo, but her main advice was, “Be sincere and trust yourself. ” I’ve come to see these suites as life-long friends, continuing to evolve with me through the years. Some folks turn to country music, but in my darkest hour I play Bach.

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Personal favorites

Earliest musical memory: Listening to my mother practice the “Frescobaldi” Toccata (by Cassado). The eloquently sad opening leads into progressively more cheerful sections and a jubilant ending. As a small child, I would let this piece transport me from the dark of winter to sunshine, flowers, and mountains.

My first time playing Brahms and Mahler Symphonies (as a teenager at Juilliard)

Brahms Piano Quartets (all of them)

A “pilgrimage” to Lake Thun and the Jungfrau region. After a music festival in Switzerland, we visited where Brahms hiked in the mountains while composing his Double Concerto, C Minor Trio, and other works. The view from Brahms’ window was of the Jungfrau range, so we had to hike there too.

Overnights on top of mountains in the Adirondacks. (In the early days, before I became a 46er, one could camp at high elevations.)

Canoeing to my wedding


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Thoughts on Barber’s Cello Sonata, Op.6

Listen! you hear the grating roar
of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
the eternal note of sadness in.
(from “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold)

The Cello Sonata, Op.6 was written in 1932 while Barber was still a student at the Curtis Institute.  Reminiscent of Brahms’ style, it possesses the Romantic lyricism and expressiveness of Barber’s most beloved works.

Although you may visualize something else, I see waves in the passionate opening of the first movement.  Rising melodic minor 6ths and descending major 2nds are strung together to soar to a dramatic climax, only to fall back again and start over.  I may be influenced by my daily jogs on the beach, but Barber ( a seasoned voyager) did use waves as a musical idea in his song “Dover Beach,” composed for baritone and string quartet in the year before he wrote the Cello Sonata.  “Dover Beach” is a setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem of the same name.

In the first movement of the Cello Sonata, the lyrical second theme has the same heartfelt sincerity found in many of his other works, such as “Knoxville Summer of 1915” and “Adagio for Strings.”

Barber’s Protestant faith and admiration of J.S. Bach influenced many of his compositions.  The chorale-like outer sections of this sonata’s second movement have an eloquent sadness that contrasts with the sprightly and playful middle section.

The expressive vocal quality and warm range of the Cello Sonata are some of its finest attributes.  In addition to being an accomplished pianist and composer, Barber possessed a fine baritone voice. Many consider Samuel Barber’s songs to be his greatest achievement. 

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