TAMPA — Symphony orchestra patrons aren't generally known for shouting up a good-natured "We can't hear in the back" if something is obviously amiss during a performance.
That's too bad.
Because if someone had, it could have staved off a disaster during the Florida Orchestra's performance Friday evening at the Straz. It unfolded uncomfortably when Austrian composer HK Gruber performed the solo narration of his avant-garde piece, Frankenstein!!. As he spoke and the orchestra played, the audience could barely make out that he was speaking, much less appreciate the comic nuances of the poetic text, which took up five pages in the playbill.
"The problem was that it was a handheld microphone and, while adjusting its height, Gruber accidentally pushed the mute button," said orchestra president Michael Pastreich, who witnessed the foulup from a seat in the mezzanine of Morsani Hall at the Straz Center.
Gruber and music director Stefan Sanderling, who was on the podium, apparently were unaware of the problem, because they plowed through the half-hour piece without a stop. Compounding the disorienting experience, the piece features a lot of zany toy instrument-playing by the orchestra.
The Gruber piece was programmed as a kind of homage to the opening of the new Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, and you could say that the experience of hearing — or not hearing — it in such a fashion was surreal in a Daliesque sort of way. Audience members were at first baffled, then annoyed, and at least one couple walked out.
"The HK Gruber solo at the Straz was one of the most inept and embarrassing moments we have experienced in our decades with our excellent orchestra," Bruce Houghton of Tampa wrote to the St. Petersburg Times in an e-mail.
Frankenstein!! was performed right before intermission. When it was over, Pastreich, with his 11-year-old daughter in tow, hustled backstage to perform some damage control.
Soon came an announcement over the PA system that the orchestra apologized for a "technical mishap" and that anyone at Friday's concert who wanted to hear the work again (and presumably done right) was welcome to attend the Saturday or Sunday concerts free of charge. That was a first in this critic's almost 20 years of attending Florida Orchestra concerts — or any orchestra's concerts, for that matter.
Gruber used a different microphone Saturday at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, and Frankenstein!! went off without a hitch. Some audience members from Tampa took it in again.
"I don't have hard numbers but I know the box office was busy Saturday making those exchanges, and I saw a lot of people both Saturday and Sunday who had been there on Friday," Pastreich said Monday.
Gruber, who has performed Frankenstein!! with orchestras all over the world, wondered why a stagehand didn't step in to alert the conductor, soloist and orchestra about the problem. They could have simply switched off the mute button and started over.
Pastreich thinks the orchestra will overcome the flub. "It's a funky piece to start with," he said. "My guess is that our audience will forgive us — as long as it doesn't happen again."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.