ST. PETERSBURG — Perry So is the latest guest conductor to go in front of the Florida Orchestra as a potential candidate to become its new music director, a process that has played out this season and will likely continue at least through 2013-14.
The Hong Kong-born So led the orchestra Friday morning at Mahaffey Theater, and he showed poise in circumstances that were less than ideal for making a great impression. Music in the morning can be sublime, as well as popular, as demonstrated by the success of the orchestra's coffee concerts, which are often sold out at Mahaffey. But these morning masterworks concerts have been a tougher sell, with a sparse turnout of several hundred on Friday. It felt like a glorified dress rehearsal. Things may improve next season when the concerts will begin an hour later at 11 a.m.
Whether by design or happenstance, So's program resembled a coffee concert, featuring a half dozen pieces on a dance theme and some talk from the podium. Hungary supplied a subtheme, with works by a pair of iconic composers from that musical country — Kodaly's Dances of Galanta and Bartok's Dance Suite — plus Brahms' arrangements of Hungarian Dances. The youthful conductor had the musicians in a different configuration than usual, with the violas seated on the outside of the orchestra to his right, with the cellos inside them toward the center. Maybe the thinking was to bring out some prominent viola in the Bartok.
With other works by Dvorak (Slavonic Dances), Bernstein (dances from On the Town) and John Adams' The Chairman Dances, the program felt a bit overstuffed, and So's remarks went on too long. But his conducting was assured, elegant and animated at the same time, with broad, expressive gestures.
The highlight was the foxtrot from Adams' opera Nixon in China, a rare outing for the orchestra in music by America's greatest living composer. So, who brought an interesting perspective to the work on President Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972 ("We've never heard the opera in China, where it is completely banned"), gave a good account of its chirpy winds, gradually changing harmonics in the strings and kinetic percussion.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.