Saturday, January 20, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Florida Orchestra opens pivotal season with Beethoven's 'Ninth Symphony'

By Jim Harper

Times Correspondent

Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony — with which the Florida Orchestra will open its season this weekend with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay — might seem an odd pairing, except for one thing.

Both end with expressions of ecstasy.

The musical language may be different. So are the sources. The "Ode to Joy" that Beethoven develops in his final movement comes from an Enlightenment poem about the brotherhood of man. A century later, Stravinsky reaches back to the Bible.

"Praise ye the Lord," declares Psalm 150, from which Stravinsky draws part of his text. "Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet. Praise Him with timbrel and dance: Praise Him with stringed instruments and organs. ... Praise Him upon the high sounding cymbals."

With imagery like that, no wonder composers in every age and style have written about four dozen excellent choral versions of the psalter's words, says James Bass, artistic director of the Master Chorale.

Pairing a modernist work with the Mount Everest of symphonies is not unprecedented, Bass adds. Several seasons ago, the chorale performed Schoenberg's unaccompanied Friede auf Erden ("Peace on Earth") along with Beethoven's familiar masterpiece. Bass says the "internal educator" in every music director enjoys linking a piece everyone wants to hear with another less likely to draw a crowd, he says. "It's an opportunity to open a door or to open a mind."

But how does a choral director prepare singers who may have sung it many times for an audience that may have heard it many times, so that each new performance will be fresh?

It helps that Beethoven has never gotten old. "Every human generation has connected with this piece since it was first performed," Bass says. "That's quite telling."

And while people who love the piece "want to have that emotional experience again, others may well be hearing it for the first time."

This is a pivotal season for the Florida Orchestra as it searches for a new music director. Evan Rogister is the first guest conductor in a season that certainly will spotlight candidates for the job.

"Every season is pivotal," jokes orchestra CEO Michael Pastreich, who has helped guide the organization through recession, pay cuts for musicians and the departure of former music director Stefan Sanderling. (Sanderling, who bowed out of his contract two years early, will return once more for a weekend of performances in March.)

Still there is good news. Overall, the orchestra's attendance has grown 27 percent in five years, says Pastreich. The musicians are in the second year of a new contract which, while not gilded, begins to give back what was lost in the dark days. Pastreich credits the "creativity and collaboration" of musicians, board members and staff. The orchestra failed to balance its most recent annual budget for the second time in six years; now there's a renewed flurry of fundraising and attention to costs.

To keep its momentum, the orchestra is moving ahead with such audience-broadening formats as its rock music series, which this year will feature the music of the Beatles (coming up Oct. 18), Pink Floyd and the Eagles. There will be family-friendly matinees on Saturdays, more morning coffee concerts, performances with cirque artists (Oct. 25-27), pops concerts and more. See floridaorchestra.org for a full schedule.

Classic and contemporary orchestral masterworks remain paramount, of course. Orchestra leaders are taking their time deciding on a new music director.

"What matters most is that you find the right person," says Pastreich. He considers it "highly unlikely" that the orchestra will announce an appointment by the end of this season.

Then again, with a parade of guest conductors coming to town, you never know which one it might be.

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