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Florida Orchestra blazes through Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture

By Andrew Meacham
Michael Francis, now in his third season as music director, has planned a celebratory lineup for the Florida Orchestra's 50th anniversary. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

TAMPA — Even people who aren’t music fans have heard of the 1812 Overture. Tchaikovsky’s booming showpiece lives on a mezzanine level of the mass mind, somewhere between Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Chopin’s Études. In the prolonged celebration of the Florida Orchestra’s 50th season, they picked something martial and glorious, reflective and effervescent for the second masterworks concert, hinting at the mood that should continue through May.

They did a fine job. But compared with two longer works, the piece famous for its cannon blasts served as something more than bookend, and something less than a reason to attend for that alone. Instead, longer works by Tchaikovsky and Witold Lutoslawski lifted the crowd Friday at Ferguson Hall of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. To the extent that the composers’ less extravagant but more complicated aims even partially succeeded here, the concert titled "Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture" is well worth hearing.

The evening began with the debut of University of South Florida professor Paul Reller’s bright and peppy Horizon Gravy. Reller’s score invites the horns to open up like time-lapsed magnolias, encapsulating 50 years in a way that feels up-to-the-minute, which is a good thing because it’s over in just a few. Fanfares are brief by definition, heavy on the brass and with a clearly defined mission, good for chasing foxes or crowning kings. Horizon Gravy is the first of five new compositions tailored to the Florida Fanfare Project, a statewide partnership between the orchestra and participating universities.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, nicknamed the "Little Russian" for its nod to Ukrainian folk melodies, was a curious thing. The orchestra got off to a clean start, a moody bassoon setting the pace for a sonata form. This quickly flowers into a series of statements and restatements through horns and strings, a conversation bridged by clarinet at one point, strings at another. The woodwinds and strings retreat, then advance joined by the horns. The first movement closes with a return to the elegant (and vaguely sad) strains of Down by Mother Volga, led by horn and bassoon.

That dancelike pattern of assertions and shy retreats continues through the remaining movements, which adhere to a traditional structure. Musicians’ focus appears to shift between unified thesis statements on either side and a kind of dutiful scurrying in between. In one segment, the normally stalwart violins escalate from quietly festive to near-squeaking. These in-between periods are messier than the reunifications that punctuate the piece like sub-headlines, signaled by conductor Michael Francis to the entire orchestra.

All of those threads come together, however, in the fourth movement, a furious gathering of dozens of themes growing in real time to a smashing conclusion. The symphony challenges both musicians and the audience to stay abreast of a multitude of its joyously twisting shapes. The fact that the orchestra chose to do it is a compliment to everyone.

Lutoslawski might not be a household name, but the Polish composer is considered one of the 20th century’s musical giants. His Concerto for Orchestra, also derived in part from folk melodies, exudes confidence and modernity. The orchestra armed itself with 84 musicians on stage — up from 72 in the "Little Russian." The first movement has barely started when the violins and violas are exploding upward, like fire racing up trees. Flute and oboe highlight subsequent movements, as tiny bow strokes in a nocturnal second movement give way to the growling bassoon and snare drums. A sense of awakening and power rises through the third moment, like a hurricane’s tide several blocks ashore, carrying cars and mud and pieces of a washed-out bridge, the same orchestra that seemed merely dutiful in parts of the Tchaikovsky now playing with total belief.

Then the big guns come out for the 1812 Overture, which includes 16 cannon blasts. In the indoor setting, percussion triggered recordings of real cannon shots. It’s a well-understood, well-executed piece of sensational music, down to the chimes that decorate its final passages, wrapping up the evening on a celebratory note.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.