ST. PETERSBURG — What a strange, wonderful thing is Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber's setting of a prose poem by James Agee about a summer evening from a child's point of view. Indra Thomas was the soloist in the piece in a morning concert Friday by the Florida Orchestra, music director Stefan Sanderling conducting, at Mahaffey Theater.
Barber called Knoxville a "lyric rhapsody," and Thomas brought soaring, passionate engagement to Agee's stream-of-consciousness text, whose imagery combines wide-eyed wonder with banality, sometimes in the same sentence: "Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose." The soprano has a lovely lyric voice, and her enunciation in the conversational passages was clearly understandable, while her high-flying, ecstatic singing ("One is my mother, who is good for me") was thrillingly full and lustrous in tone.
Thomas, who would occasionally glance at the score in her hand, is an opera singer, and she acted the music dramatically to connect with listeners. The ending was extraordinary, as soprano and orchestra created a complex, mysterious atmosphere as twilight gave way to night, with a haunting oboe solo (by Katherine Young Steele) echoing Thomas in the child's lament that her mother and father "will not ever tell me who I am."
Incidentally, for more of Barber's amazing music, Sarasota Opera is staging his opera Vanessa, which has three performances through March 24.
Despite the summertime setting of Barber's song, Sanderling's program had a spring theme, opening with Copland's ballet score, Appalachian Spring, performed by 13-piece orchestra. Except for a smudged flute phrase early on, the solo work by the flute, clarinet and bassoon principals, Clay Ellerbroek, Brian Moorhead and Anthony Georgeson, respectively, was perfectly poised, and the hoedown fiddling was fun.
Schumann's Symphony No. 1, Spring, occupied the second half of the program, and it is the sort of repertoire that Sanderling excels in. The opening movement was especially well paced, taking on a propulsive momentum as it transitioned into the Allegro section, and the third movement was full of vigorous energy. Only in the finale did the narrative thread of the symphony start to wander a bit.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.