Twyla Tharp goes back a long way with Frank Sinatra.
"My mother was enamored of Sinatra," Tharp said in a phone interview. "She was a concert pianist, and she always felt that Sinatra was the best of the popular vocalists. I came to him through her rather than directly myself."
In almost 50 years as a choreographer, Tharp has mined the Sinatra song catalog for her works of modern dance and ballet, culminating with Come Fly Away, a Broadway dance musical whose tour plays in Tampa this week.
Tharp, 70, made at least three Sinatra pieces before the Broadway show: Once More Frank (1976), Nine Sinatra Songs (1982) and Sinatra Suite (1984). "Each sort of evolved from the previous incarnation when the time came," she said. "There are snippets of movement in the Broadway show that probably go back to the duet (Once More Frank)."
Come Fly Away, which follows four couples in search of love, is performed to the recorded voice of Sinatra, with a live orchestra. It includes more than 30 songs identified with Sinatra, from familiar standards like My Way and That's Life to relative obscurities like Just Friends.
Tharp met Sinatra when her dance company performed to his songs on Broadway in the 1980s. "He came on stage for a curtain call with us one time, and acknowledged that he got a little teary in the audience," Tharp said. "I said, 'Why was that?' and he said that in his heart he always wanted to be a dancer and not a singer. Well, I said, 'Frank, you're a very good dancer in your movies. However, don't quit your day job.' When he received the Kennedy Center honors he asked us to do excerpts from Sinatra Suite for that occasion."
Come Fly Away, which played about six months on Broadway in 2010, was Tharp's third dance revue inspired by an iconic singer, following Movin' Out to Billy Joel songs and The Times They Are A-Changin' to Bob Dylan songs.
"The music, the book, the dancing — it's a little like a triple acrostic," she said, referring to the puzzle of putting together such shows. Here's how she compared the three:
"The Joel in many ways is the simplest, with the most straight line because he's a very good storyteller. His lyrics make an easy narration. Dylan was extremely difficult because he's a surrealist, and his storytelling is peripheral. It's not down the middle like Billy's, so finding his world and putting his characters in it is never going to be comfortable for an audience that has a linear way of thinking. With the material for the Sinatra, coming out of the American songbook, you have a plethora of great lyrics, and it all deals with one subject called love. It does not have characters, it does not have place, it does not have time, it has only love. Sorting that out and giving it enough definition so that characters and their dilemmas and their choices can become something an audience can recognize is a challenge."
Come Fly Away opens Tuesday and has eight performances through April 1 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
In the early 1960s, when Geraldine Walther was 10 years old, going to Broward Elementary School and living in the Tampa neighborhood Seminole Heights, her father made a visit to a pawn shop that set her on the path of a brilliant musical career.
"He swapped a shotgun and $10 for a viola at a pawn shop," Walther said in a phone interview. "He brought the viola home, and I fell in love with it immediately."
Today, Walther is a superstar on an instrument that doesn't get a lot of attention. For nearly 30 years, she was principal viola of the San Francisco Symphony. Seven years ago, she left the symphony to join the Takacs Quartet, one of the world's leading chamber ensembles.
"I loved the viola because it was so different from the violin," said Walther, who started out as a violinist as a child in Tampa. "It grows on you, playing the viola. All the great composers played the viola: Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Dvorak. It's so much more like the human voice to me. It's not quite as high as the violin. Usually the most mournful kinds of things are left for the viola to say. It's like the oboe in a way, all those sad, beautiful things that the oboe plays."
Walther, 61, is back in the Tampa Bay area this week for a residency at the University of South Florida. She'll be working with students as well as playing a concert with a chamber orchestra as the soloist in the Bruch Romanza for viola and the Stamitz Viola Concerto.
When she was a precocious teenage musician, Walther would play with the Tampa Philharmonic, a forerunner of the Florida Orchestra. The music director was a conductor named Alfredo Antonini, and he would bring in faded stars as soloists.
"I remember when Mischa Elman, the great Russian violinist, played Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole with the Tampa Philharmonic," she said. "He was in his 70s then, and he still sounded good."
In an odd quirk of musical history, Walther is not the only viola player who grew up in the bay area in the '60s and is now in a famous string quartet. Paul Yarbrough, the violist in the Alexander Quartet, is from Clearwater. "I never knew him back then, though I would see him in San Francisco," where the Alexander Quartet is based, she said.
Walther, the mother of two grown daughters, still has family in the Tampa Bay area, including her father and two brothers. She hasn't lived in the area since heading off at 17 to study at the Manhattan School of Music and then the Curtis Institute of Music.
The Takacs Quartet, founded in Budapest in 1975, is now in residence at the University of Colorado, though it tours much of the year. It is renowned especially for its interpretations of the Bartok and Beethoven quartets.
"I had to be crazy to leave such a good job with the San Francisco Symphony, but I couldn't pass up the chance to learn all these pieces I thought I'd never get a chance to play, like the Janacek string quartets, the Britten string quartets," said Walther, who plays a 1776 Guadagnini viola. "It never ceases to be challenging."
Walther will perform as a soloist in the concertos by Stamitz and Bruch with a chamber orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the USF Concert Hall on the Tampa campus.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.