ST. PETERSBURG — When you ask a crowd of frequent concertgoers if anyone has heard live performances of Sea Drift and Appalachia, two of Frederick Delius' works for orchestra, chorus and baritone soloist, maybe a few hands will be raised. So Friday morning's program of both by the Florida Orchestra, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and baritone Leon Williams, with Stefan Sanderling conducting, was an auspicious occasion.
The concert at Mahaffey Theater may help to elevate the profile of Delius (1862-1934), and especially in Florida, where the English composer found his musical voice when he was sent by his father to live on an orange plantation below Jacksonville in 1884. With microphones interspersed around the stage, the performance was recorded for a CD on the Naxos label. Additional recording will take place during tonight's concert plus an hourlong "patch" session afterward.
Along with the rare opportunity to take in a swath of Delius' most ambitious music — his lighter works, such as On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, are more commonly played — this was also the orchestra's first masterworks program in the morning, with 527 in attendance. The sparse turnout didn't eliminate the extraneous noise that is the bane of recording engineers, as the alarm on an audience member's watch went off to ruin a lovely stillness at the end of Sea Drift, which took up the first half of the concert. After intermission, Sanderling delivered a humorous but stern "Miranda warning" from the podium: "You have … the necessity to remain silent … and everything you say will be held against you."
The program was not all Delius. Poet James E. Tokley Sr. was the expert narrator in Copland's Lincoln Portrait. Beethoven's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Op. 112) was scheduled until Sanderling and Master Chorale artistic director James Bass dropped it to allow more rehearsal time on the Delius works.
Appalachia (from an American Indian word, later used to describe the North American continent) in particular reflects the influence of Florida on Delius. Composed between 1896 and 1902, it is a 30-minute set of variations on an African-American folk song, Oh Honey, I Am Going Down the River in the Morning. Delius likely heard it from the porch of his house at Solano Grove sung by black workers on the plantation, the sound wafting across the St. Johns River, an effect suggested by the way the celestial chorus gradually starts to materialize — as if emerging from a mist — about halfway through the work. That, at least, is the persuasive theory of Don Gillespie, a Delius expert. Gillespie and Joe Horowitz, a thematic programming consultant, are enlivening the orchestra's foray into Delius by doing a series of presentations, including pre-concert talks tonight and Sunday night.
Ethereal, transcendent, mystical — Appalachia is a tone poem to the watery natural world of Florida. It is an oddly structured work, mostly orchestral (reminiscent of an old movie score) until the spiritual, sung from the chorus by Williams, giving sorrowful voice to the plight of a slave being sold down the river.
Sea Drift is closely related to Appalachia, having been written about the same time, but it is a shapelier, more coherent work. The Walt Whitman text, from Leaves of Grass, is superbly singable, with the 141-voice Master Chorale expressing the lapping rhythms of the ocean in plush, resonant fashion. The story of a seabird that has lost its mate took on a tragic dimension in the performance by Williams, ending on a heart stopping lament, "We two together no more, no more!," echoed by chorus, then two notes on English horn.
Delius can be esoteric and complex, but his Florida connection is a fascinating strand of the American cultural fabric. For the Florida Orchestra to record these two seminal works by him constitutes one of its most shining hours.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.