Culture club, Sarasota style

Sarasota is known as the arts capital of Florida, and there’s some truth in that. The city boasts a symphony orchestra, college of arts and design, the Ringling Museum (started by John Ringling the circus king), galleries, festivals and all of the restaurants and services that support those organizations.

We headed for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and a concert by the Sarasota Orchestra, but first we needed dinner. Negotiating St. Armands Circle is difficult even for experienced drivers, with people and cars and other distractions everywhere. We parked near L’Europe (La ROPE), a restaurant Henry Raab had recommended, and walked the shops, buying gifts for the kids—a shell necklace for one, gummy candy for the other.

L’Europe offered café seating on the sidewalk but since it was cool (65 during the day and about 47 at night) we ate inside. The décor consisted of dark wood, brick and mirrors, a painting of sailboats on the wall. The host had said over the phone that the dress code was “resort casual.” “You can wear jeans, just not ripped or torn jeans,” he’d said. “Shorts are OK—anything you can wear on the golf course.” As we took our table, we noticed the waiters wore ties and vests, the male customers sports coats, the woman jackets with bulky jewelry. No resort casual here. Dinner consisted of filet mignon and salmon l’orange, with coffee for desert.

We drove to the Van Wezel center and parked the rental among the Caddies and Beemers.

Sarasota Orchestra webThe concert by the Sarasota Orchestra was a surprise. The average age of the audience was in the upper-seventies but most of the members of the orchestra looked under forty. They opened with Bernstein’s “On the Town” and featured the young violinist Elena Urioste in Samuel Barber’s “Violin Concerto,” who played the piece as a fiery lamentation. Topping the program was Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 for organ.

Granted we sat in the seventh row, so close we could almost read the sheet music, but I have never heard an unamplified group play so loud. At first maestro Leif Bjaland appeared stiff and militaristic but after a few bars he warmed to the music and his players, sweeping the baton and thrusting his fist into the air. At one point he lunged toward the brass section as if leaping hurdles over the violas and woodwinds. He asked them to draw deep and they did, playing with precision and zest. The crowd loved it, taking to its feet after the last two works, then left with a speed that would have impressed an eighteen-year-old.