Articles by

Sebastian Spreng

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    Miamians turned out in force for “Mozart in Havana,” the South Florida debut of Havana Lyceum Orchestra, under the baton of José Antonio Mendéz Padrón and appearing with its champion pianist Simone Dinnerstein in a refreshing, meaningful performance at Miami Beach’s New World Center.
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    The New World Symphony and Seraphic Fire, musical institutions that have become truly emblematic of Miami, closed their 2016-2017 season with significant performances–significant in that they reflected both the merits and shortcomings of a city making musical progress despite an occasional step backwards. Though lacking a solid musical core for a city of its size, Miami is fortunate to call itself home to two organizations that transcend local borders. With both, exceptional quality is the norm, and hometown audiences benefit from supporting them.
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    Juanjo Mena is sure to shake up the classical music scene in South Florida when he makes his local debut on April 8 with the New World Symphony. The Basque maestro is considered by many to be the most distinguished Spanish conductor of his generation. Orchestras fight over his services, and he is considered a musician’s musician–the ultimate compliment in the classical music world.
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    Preceded by well-earned prestige in Europe and Latin America, the Cuban group Ars Longa recently made its Miami debut. The concert was the last stop in the group's first U.S. tour. The Baroque music ensemble, fresh from appearances in Milwaukee and New York, performed at Florida International University’s Wertheim Hall thanks to the efforts of the university and, especially, the Miami Bach Society, which has been sponsoring the annual Tropical Baroque Festival for almost two decades. Bringing Ars Longa to Miami proved a worthy undertaking. The early-music group–founded in 1994 by its current director, Teresa Paz, and Aland López–delivered an impeccable performance of original material that felt incredibly fresh for this part of the world, as well as uncovering seldom-heard treasures from a cultural legacy that merits further exploration. 
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    Some 20 years ago, when I interviewed soprano Barbara Hendricks, who was making her New World Symphony debut, she expressed concern over the absence of music education in school curricula and the devastating consequences of that omission, especially on African-American children. “Remember,” said the exquisite Arkansas-born singer, “that in a few years we will ask ourselves where the new Leontynes are. At the rate we are going, they will be few, or fleeting.” This month, Leontyne Price, the singer Hendricks referenced, celebrated her 90th birthday, and Hendricks’ farsighted observation rings true.In the opera world, African-American singers have achieved what was unthinkable decades ago. There are more singers today, but–just as Hendricks predicted–fewer stars since their peak in the 1960s and '70s. At the time, we saw glittering new figures dominating opera houses for many seasons–figures like Price, Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry.There was no one better than Price to herald the rise of the African-American soprano. She possessed a different voice, an unprecedented and unexpected sound in the operatic landscape. It was smoky and sensual, bringing new color and character to the genre. Her unique sound sparked controversy and praise, raising once more the question: “Is there such a thing as a 'black' voice?” Theories, both reasonable and preposterous, will continue to abound, even if there’s a broad consensus that the voices of African-American singers tend to possess a particularly velvety quality that elicits an incomparable thrill.
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    In its first three performances of 2017—two subscription concerts, along with a special, one-night-only event—the Cleveland Orchestra Miami offered programming that lived up to the orchestra's sterling reputation. The Knight Arts grantee kicked off the year by pairing Johann Sebastian Bach and Anton Bruckner, followed by a Nordic night consisting of Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius' Second Symphony, and then hosting star soloist Yo-Yo Ma—a trio of high-caliber events that signaled the orchestra's intention to reach still higher this time around during its winter residency in the Magic City.