TAMPA — Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 has personal meaning for Stefan Sanderling. It was responsible for him becoming a conductor, the Florida Orchestra music director said in a pre-concert talk Friday night. More than 20 years ago, living in his native East Germany, Sanderling wanted to be a musicologist, but when he wrote a politically incorrect program note about the symphony that displeased Communist authorities, that academic career was closed to him. So he had no choice but to become a conductor.
The Sixth Symphony is one of Shostakovich's less familiar works, an odd, beautiful, haunting creation that the orchestra performed for its first program of the new decade at Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Perhaps because of a physical issue, Sanderling led while seated in a chair, but his conducting was no less vigorous.
The symphony is unusual in that it has three movements, instead of the conventional four, and starts with a giant largo that, at 20 minutes long, takes up almost two-thirds of the piece. Much of the movement was played exceedingly softly, and it featured the most amazing collection of solos for piccolo, flute, bass clarinet, English horn and others. All this, taken at a very deliberate pace by Sanderling, seemed as if it shouldn't have held together, but it did in spellbinding fashion.
The second movement had the sardonic woodwinds that are a Shostakovich trademark, but what really took off was the finale, with its effervescent classical quickness in the strings (reminiscent, in fact, of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony).
The first half of Friday's concert was taken up by a pair of Richard Strauss symphonic tone poems, full of the picturesque instrumental writing that led the way to the composer's brilliant operas. Geoff Pilkington, the guest principal French horn, deftly handled the tricky rhythms of his solo that opened Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, but the reprise could have been projected more forcefully. Death and Transfiguration was glorious in its metamorphosis from a gloomy C-minor chord at the beginning into heavenly, harp-laden C-major at the end.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.