TAMPA — Symphony orchestras don't play much music by J.S. Bach, who came from an earlier era. So it was a treat to hear the Florida Orchestra perform the first Bach cantata in its 41-year history on Friday night.
And audience members did not just listen to Cantata No. 60, they sang in it, joining choristers from Opera Tampa in the chorale, Es ist genug (It is enough). Music director Stefan Sanderling led an impromptu rehearsal, taking the audience through the piece twice before getting down to business.
Friday's concert, in Ferguson Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, opened the 2008-09 Masterworks series, though the orchestra has been playing pops, coffee, park and education concerts since early October. Sanderling was in front of the musicians for the first time in the season, having just returned from conducting in Asia.
Sanderling knows his Bach. As a young man in Germany, he studied in Leipzig, where the master had his most success. The Bach cantata — and the audience sing-along — was a great idea, but the execution was not so great. Soprano Jessica Best could not be heard over the orchestra in the first movement, and she and tenor Bryce Westervelt got out of synch in their duet. Baritone Won Cho didn't sound at home in Bach either.
Baroque singing takes specific talents — clarity of diction, a joyousness in the phrasing — that the soloists lacked.
You could thank Alban Berg for Sanderling's inspiration to perform the Bach. Berg's Violin Concerto quotes the cantata's chorale, and it was indeed a cool thing, as an audience member, to hear an orchestral variation of what you had just sung.
Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer was the soloist, and he brought an expert balance of lushness and edgy bite to Berg's mix of 12-tone thorniness and traditional tonality. He had singing tone in the high, exposed passages, and handled the fiery fiddling that begins the second part with aplomb. The ending was almost like Hollywood movie music in its sweeping romanticism, but with an enthralling complexity.
Beethoven's Seventh Symphony wound up the evening. Sanderling's tempos ranged from ultra slow in the second movement to downright peppy in the third. The finale was as exciting as always, driven hard by the timpani and lower strings.
There was a presentation on Friday to honor Don Owen, who has played trumpet with the orchestra and its predecessors since 1964. This is the last season for Owen, who is retiring. He was joined onstage by his wife, Justine LeBaron, a horn player who is on leave of absence.
John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes or (727) 461-0218.