Twenty-five years ago, when Al May was on a business trip to Washington, he stopped by the National Gallery and fell in love with a series of four paintings called The Voyage of Life. Painted by Thomas Cole in 1840, they represent the stages of a man's life: childhood, youth, manhood and old age, all depicting a voyager in a boat on a river.
"The whole thing tells me a story,'' said May, a retired banker in St. Petersburg. "We all are mortal. We all are born. We all die. And we learn that gathering treasures is not very important. At the end, material things are either washed away or thrown out of the boat.''
May returns to look at the Cole paintings whenever he is in Washington. More than a year ago he commissioned composer Mark Sforzini to write a piece inspired by them. It will be premiered Tuesday on the Encore chamber music series, of which Sforzini is artistic director, at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg.
"Al gave me copies of the pictures,'' the composer said. "It's perfect for a piece because they make such an interesting arc.''
May paid Sforzini $10,000 for the work. He didn't specify instrumentation or length or give the composer a deadline. "I wanted to give him full creative freedom to do what he wanted to do,'' he said.
Sforzini wrote a 20-minute, four-movement work for flute, cello, violin and piano. It will be played by an all-star lineup of French pianist Pascal Roge; Clay Ellerbroek, principal flute with the Florida Orchestra; Amy Schwartz Moretti, former concertmaster of the orchestra and the Oregon Symphony; and Isabelle Besancon, a cellist with the Sarasota Orchestra (and wife of Florida Orchestra music director Stefan Sanderling).
"One of the things I like to do is to mix the family of instruments a little bit more than they get mixed by other composers or in earlier times,'' said Sforzini, who has some 30 chamber music pieces to his credit. "It's kind of a French composer trait. Violin, cello and piano is a very standard combination. But there aren't a lot of pieces for flute, cello, violin and piano.''
Sforzini, former principal bassoon with the Florida Orchestra, is also artistic director of the St. Petersburg Opera. Tuesday's Encore program includes the Brahms Piano Trio in B Major and Faure's Sonata for violin and piano.
One recent afternoon, Sforzini and May met at the Palladium and the composer played a computerized version of his work on Cole's paintings. "I'm definitely in this painting in my life,'' Sforzini, 40, said during a tumultuous section of the third movement for the painting Manhood.
"I'm moving into the last one (Old Age),'' said May, 72, a devoted supporter of the arts in the Tampa Bay area. Ten years ago, he commissioned St. Petersburg artist Lance Rodgers to do a painting on the Cole series. It hangs in his bedroom.
Clearly, The Voyage of Life was a turning point in May's life. "It was kind of a mid-life crisis situation,'' he said of seeing the paintings for the first time. "At some point you have to realize that we have only so much time on this Earth, and you need to make the best of it.''
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New play readings are busting out all over. At American Stage in St. Petersburg, the "Hot off the Press'' series, featuring local playwrights, continues with Match Point by Harry Schmidt on Monday; Blue Willow by Kim Hanna March 22; and Lone Wolves by Philip Hall March 29. All are at 7 p.m., followed by a talk back with the playwright. Free. (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org.
Jobsite Theater also has a series of staged readings. It includes Maria Kizito, a play set in Rwanda by Erik Ehn, on Monday; a version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof featuring an African-American cast and pop music March 30; and Superwoman Died Tonight by Lori D. Shannon May 18. All are at 7:30 p.m. in the Shimberg Playhouse of Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa. $5. (813) 229-7827; jobsitetheater.org.
Also at the Shimberg, On the Way to O'Neill's: JFK in Ireland by Ann G. Bauer and David Beckett will be given a staged reading by Jobsite and Silver Meteor Gallery March 21-23. Directed by James Rayfield, the play is "an alternate history play that imagines the later life of former President John F. Kennedy, who survived that fateful day in November 1963 but lost both his wife and the presidency.'' $7. (813) 300-3585.
The Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota inaugurates a series called "Unplugged'' that runs today through April 3 and includes staged readings and developmental workshops of new plays by Michelle Carter, Steven Drukman, Carey Perloff and Rogelio Martinez. Love & Irony by Craig Lucas will be given readings April 2-3. $5-$15. (941) 351-8000 or toll-free 1-800-361-8388; asolo.org.
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Jeffrey Stephenson, the Florida Orchestra's English horn player, who has a one-year contract this season, won a recent audition for the position. Thus, he will be a full-time permanent player in 2010-11. A native of Columbia, S.C., he studied at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music and the Eastman School of Music and has played in the Houston Grand Opera and Ballet Orchestras, Rochester Philharmonic and New World Symphony.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.