To hear the Florida Orchestra this weekend is to be reminded what a magnificent animal a symphony orchestra can be. It leaps, it soars, it whispers. It percolates with a thousand moving parts.
Two of the pieces on the Masterworks program, led by eminent guest conductor Gerard Schwarz, revealed the range and depth of the orchestra's virtuosity.
David Diamond's Symphony No. 4, written in 1945-46, is a kaleidoscopic swirl of activity. Diamond writes in a sonorous tonal style, with lots of open-voiced chords, similar to some other mid-century American composers such as Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. But Diamond is also a master of counterpoint. Every snippet of rhythm and melody provokes a reaction in another part of the orchestra. The music cannot help but move forward, and you are irresistibly drawn into it.
The three-movement work showcases every part of the orchestra. The strings sweep and billow. The winds do their busy job of providing contrast and texture. The trumpets punctuate. And the percussion, never overbearing, adds just the right amount of urgency.
Diamond died in 2005, a month before his 90th birthday. He and conductor Schwarz were good friends; he often visited or traveled with Schwarz's family. On Friday night, their affinity showed.
The other showpiece turned out to be something of a surprise: the thorny modernist Arnold Schoenberg's 1937 orchestration of a Brahms quartet for piano and strings, written in 1861. One composer choosing to flesh out another's small-scale piece is not uncommon — Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, originally written for piano alone, may be the most famous.
In an engaging pre-concert talk with some of the audience, Schwarz recalled that Schoenberg offered three reasons for undertaking the project. First, the quartet was not often played anymore, at least in those days. Second, when it was played, it was often played badly. Finally, when it was played well it was usually because a very good pianist was taking the quartet's hardest part. But the pianist also tended to overshadow the other players, which meant a listener didn't always hear all the notes.
"I want to be sure you hear all the notes," Schoenberg reportedly said.
And indeed you do. From the very start you realize this is Brahms, not Schoenberg: There are those long melodic lines that seem always to have a couple more wrinkles than you expect; those unfolding harmonies; that anchor of a sturdy bass line. The real fun comes in listening to Schoenberg spread the music to all 78 musicians on stage. You hear arpeggios you just know were written for piano, passed around between the strings and the woodwinds, especially the flutes at the top end. You hear xylophones and gongs. Horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba give the third movement a martial air. After the fourth movement — a rollicking rondo that reminds you of the composer's Hungarian Dances — you feel as if you've just discovered that Brahms wrote a fifth symphony to go with his other four. Amazing.
It seemed right that the program should also include some Mozart, given Schwarz's long association with the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. The symphony he chose was an early one, No. 28, written when Mozart was 18. Friday's performance, using just 35 players, was chipper enough, but to my ear it was weighed down by an unfocused darkness of tone in the violins that belied the sunniness of the piece.