TAMPA — The Florida Orchestra performed outside the box in its opening masterworks concert of the year, presenting its first-ever puppet ballet Friday night at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
The orchestra has molded visual elements into past productions — a tour of the solar system for Holst's Planets from a decade ago comes to mind — but never has the group mixed musicians with live theater on the same stage. In an attempt to appeal to new audiences, music director Stefan Sanderling this weekend collaborates with Bits 'N Pieces Puppet Theatre in recreating the 1911 version of Stravinsky's Petrushka.
Certainly, the puppet company's imaginative, 9-foot-tall creations added a touch of the surreal to Stravinsky's score, and the dream-like dances enchanted many of the 1,200 people in Morsani Hall. For all its daring, however, this papier-mache Petrushka fell short of artistic triumph. The orchestra and cast of animated puppets felt like a forced marriage with assignments often out of synch, and the magic of the story gave way to technical distractions.
Musically, the orchestra played with plenty of bite throughout the ballet's four tableaux. It brought out the stark, primary colors of the country fair; the quirky, burlesque elements of the Blackamoor's music; and sparked the main character's appearances through brazen collisions of the unrelated keys of C and F sharp.
Sanderling opened the night with a crisp performance of Stravinsky's Circus Polka, written in 1942 as an elephant dance for the circus.
The evening's most satisfying moments came from Borodin's Symphony No. 2, a muscular work that deserves far more flexing in concert halls. Borodin's output is small, but his B minor symphony creatively fuses folk elements with power, and the musicians reveled in its noble themes, rugged rhythms and martial fanfares.
Kurt Loft is a Tampa-based critic who has covered the bay area's classical music scene for nearly 30 years.