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Florida Orchestra in top form at the Straz Center

TAMPA — There was a theatrical quality to the first half of Friday's Florida Orchestra concert at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. It opened with Ives' The Unanswered Question with orchestra members positioned around the stage seemingly almost at random — four flutes seated in chairs in one corner, most of the strings standing upstage and principal trumpet Robert Smith in the balcony (at least that's where music director Stefan Sanderling pointed at the end of the piece; from my seat I couldn't see where the soloist was in Ferguson Hall).

Smith handled the high-wire solo with aplomb — seven times he asked the "Perennial Question of Existence" in the same phrasing and tone over the organ-like sonority of the strings and ever-more assertive winds.

Bartok's magnificent Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta featured more unorthodox staging, with two groups of strings flanking a central core of percussion, harp and celesta and piano. The four-movement, 30-minute work begins with melancholy strings that build in volume and energy until the rustle of cymbals lead to the twinkling sound of celesta, a kind of cross between glockenspiel and piano with hammers that hit metal plates instead of strings. The third movement is a dramatic epiphany of creepy, crawly effects (as heard in the score for The Shining) that include harp and eerie timpani. The ghostly finale is like Bartok's homage to a vanished old Europe, with its Schumannesque piano flourishes and lush strings. He composed the work just before the deluge of World War II.

Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), which took up the second half of the program, also has a dramatic element, if you buy the scholarship that it was inspired by Longfellow's narrative poem The Song of Hiawatha, which the composer read in a Czech translation. Sanderling and the orchestra were at the top of their form in this symphony full of engrossing musical episodes that never cease to amaze. Jeffrey Stephenson was the superb English horn soloist in the famous Largo.

People attending tonight's concert at Mahaffey Theater will find the stage festooned with microphones. The orchestra is making a live recording of From the New World, so any clapping between movements or coughing or scraping of chairs — or, heaven forbid, cell phones going off — will be verboten.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

. FAST FACTS

Florida Orchestra

The program repeats at 8 p.m. today at Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $20-$67. (727) 892-3337 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286;

floridaorchestra.org.

Florida Orchestra in top form at the Straz Center 05/01/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 12:25am]

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