TAMPA — Friday's concert by the Florida Orchestra was in excellent hands with guest conductor Gerard Schwarz on the podium in Morsani Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performng Arts. Having been music director of the Seattle Symphony for 26 years, until stepping down in 2011, Schwarz's experience showed in his seemingly effortless handling of a pair of challenging works, the Vaughan Williams anti-war cantata Dona Nobis Pacem (with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and soloists) and Dvorak's masterful Symphony No. 7.
In the cantata, which sets three Walt Whitman poems, soprano soloist Christina Pier was a ravishing presence, floating above the tumult with her singing of the Angus Dei and especially its final plea: Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace), repeated throughout the five-part work. (Pier replaced Sarah Coburn, who canceled because of illness in her family.) The other soloist, bass-baritone Charles Robert Austin, gave an uneven performance, sounding awfully light and hooty in Reconciliation.
The Master Chorale, prepared by its artistic director, James Bass, is getting to be an old hand at Whitman's verse. In January, it collaborated with the orchestra on Delius' Sea Drift, with its Whitman text. In 2006, orchestra and chorus performed Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony, which also sets verse by Whitman.
Friday, the chorus' gorgeous, celestial sound in Dirge for Two Veterans was a revelation, the words remarkably clear and well-enunciated for such a large group, 160 voices strong.
It is a truism that the final two movements of Dvorak's D-minor symphony are close to perfection in their Bohemian dance rhythms and punchy brass, but I also found myself drawn into the more tangled web of the opening movement. Under Schwarz, the multiplicity of elements — a brusque horn phrase, a fluttering flute trill, a swelling theme in the strings — all combined into a constantly moving sonic texture that was completely engrossing.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.