ST. PETERSBURG — Markus Groh seems born to play the piano, with his long arms and big hands, and the ponytailed German showed that to be true Friday morning as he gave an amazing performance as the soloist in Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2, with music director Stefan Sanderling and the Florida Orchestra at Mahaffey Theater.
The piano part is absurdly difficult, but Groh blasted through long stretches of almost continuous playing with athletic ease, dashing off trills, scales and chordal clusters like so many diamonds. He also brought a sensitive touch to the "night music" of the Adagio. He played with the score and a page turner, and the lid was taken off the piano, enhancing the percussive quality of the music. Sanderling and the orchestra attended closely to the intricate details, such as the busy brass playing and the shimmering G major at the end.
Bartok's Divertimento for string orchestra opened the concert in the buoyant vein of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony or one of Stravinsky's neoclasssical gems. But then the atmosphere darkened and took on layers of complexity in the ghostly middle movement, before bursting into a lively finale that included beautiful fiddle playing by concertmaster Jeffrey Multer.
Multer and other principals all had a turn to shine in the familiar themes from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake Suite, which took up the second half of the program.
I like these new morning masterworks concerts by the orchestra — not least because they make my life a little easier, freeing me from the tight, late-night deadlines — but I wonder if they make any commercial sense, considering that each of the first two this month attracted a crowd of around 500. The orchestra's concerts of light classics, starting an hour later at Mahaffey and offering doughnuts and coffee and the conductor chatting from the stage, draw well. Maybe Bartok at 10 in the morning is a bit much.
Friday's concert was somewhat compromised by part of the audience that insisted on clapping between each and every movement of all three works on the program. Not to be fussy, but these works — certainly the Bartok pieces — are written and performed to be listened to all the way through, not broken up by applause.
Speaking of concert deportment, why in the world does Mahaffey pipe in recorded music to the lobby and other areas outside the auditorium? This defeats the purpose of going to a concert, to savor the sound of live music. I guess the theater management must be trying to create some sort of mood, but to be hit by syrupy canned music before and after a concert, as well as during intermission, is ridiculous.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.