TAMPA — The Florida Orchestra has done an excellent thing by bringing in Scottish composer James MacMillan to conduct not only his own music but also that of Ralph Vaughan Williams, an earlier British master with whom he clearly has a kinship. To round out this weekend's program, concertmaster Jeffrey Multer is the soloist in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto.
MacMillan, 50, is in the prime of his brilliant career, and the orchestra has played two of his works in previous seasons, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and the percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel. So the audience was ready for some of his newest music Friday night in Morsani Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center: three orchestral interludes from his second opera, The Sacrifice, obviously inspired by Britten's Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes.
MacMillan's interludes opened the concert with a compact display of his gift for orchestral color, especially in the percussion writing. The way that moments of shimmering delicacy and precision were punctuated by mighty blasts in the brass and percussion reminded me of Shostakovich. The orchestra gave an alert performance for the composer, whose conducting style is clear and energetic.
Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto is one of those beloved romantic showpieces that is forever playing in the concert hall of your mind. Multer was impressively secure in the high keening passages, of which the concerto has many, and he paced the famous cadenza in the first movement beautifully, drawing out the drama of it. His playing of the noble, melancholy tune of the Andante was a pleasure without becoming a sentimental wallow, and he had plenty in reserve for the virtuosic finale.
Part of MacMillan's mission in coming to Florida was to spread the gospel of British music, and he succeeded splendidly on that score with Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 4. It has the reputation of being a punishing, brutal work from the composer best known for bucolic, pretty works such as The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on Greensleeves. The symphony is uncompromising in its modernity, and I have heard some angry, abrupt performances (a recording conducted by Andre Previn, for example). But amid the tumult there was a lush loveliness to the music under MacMillan's baton, as in the surprisingly gentle dissonance of the opening theme and the dreamy flute solo that ended the second movement. The frenetic finish left the audience in stunned silence before breaking into applause.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.