Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Morning maestro Stuart Malina hits right tone at Florida Orchestra coffee concert

ST. PETERSBURG — Every seat was taken for Thursday's coffee concert by the Florida Orchestra at Mahaffey Theater. And it wasn't just the free coffee and doughnuts that drew 2,000 people.

For one thing, it's hard to imagine a more pleasant setting than the concert hall by Tampa Bay on a perfect day, with sailboats bobbing in the marina. The Salvador Dali Museum is across the lawn for anyone who wants to combine a concert of light classics with surrealistic art.

The orchestra's coffee series has long been popular, in part because of its genial conductors who know how to keep things informal and fun while still playing some interesting music. Through the years audiences became very attached to Ed Cumming, Tom Wilkins, Susan Haig and Alastair Willis.

Stuart Malina is the latest maestro in the morning, and he led a program of "Viennese Delights," ranging from Mozart (the overture to The Marriage of Figaro) to Brahms (the finale of his Second Symphony) to Von Suppe (the Poet and Peasant overture).

One of the pleasures of the coffee series is that it often features music a little off the beaten path, such as Schubert's Rosamunde overture, which was well shaped and alertly performed under Malina, with a deft sense of restraint in the brass flourishes. On the downside, Johann Strauss Jr.'s Morgenblatter (Morning Papers) waltz may be the ultimate in easy listening, but it can be deceptively difficult to bring off with finesse, and Thursday's account was labored.

Malina got the audience on his side early in the concert when he cheerfully acknowledged a mistake. After he reversed the order of Strauss pieces from what was in the playbill, the orchestra musicians scrambled to get the right music on their stands.

"You know you're in trouble when you hear paper shuffling behind you," the conductor said, to laughter.

Malina's patter from the podium included amusing historical anecdotes — Strauss' Tritsch-Tratsch polka may have been named after his first wife's poodle — and musicological points, such as how Lehar was a composer "who knew what his money music was," endlessly recycling the famous waltz tune from The Merry Widow in the concert overture of the operetta.

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