Sunday, December 17, 2017
Stage

Acrobats fly, Bowie is remembered in Florida Orchestra's 2016-17 season

An energized Florida Orchestra will increase its number of concerts starting in the fall while retaining a mix of classical and pops, including tributes to David Bowie.

Fourteen Masterworks concerts lead the way for the 2016-17 season, with an emphasis on Russian and French compositions. The selections include Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (April 28-30, 2017), Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 (April 8-9, 2017) and an evening of Beethoven, Ravel and Rachmaninoff (March 31-April 2, 2017).

The pops opener, Cirque de la Symphonie (Oct. 7-9), goes to ultimate lengths to engage and entertain. The musicians essentially play the straight man, content to accompany a bevy of acrobats, aerialists, strongmen and contortionists performing in a manner befitting the word cirque.

The season opens with a Masterworks concert of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, conducted by Michael Francis and accompanied by the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay (Sept. 30-Oct. 2). The pace quickens with pianist Jeremy Denk playing Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Oct. 21-23), conducted by Karina Canellakis.

Francis returns as conductor for Mozart's Jupiter Symphony (Nov. 4-6) and Songs of the Sea: Britten, Elgar and Debussy (Nov. 11-13); he will conduct six more Masterworks concerts after that. Other conductors will fill in for Brahms, Mozart and Mendelssohn (Stuart Malina, Jan. 21-22), Beethoven and Rachmaninoff (Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who will play the piano and conduct, March 31-April 2, 2017) and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 (Nicholas Carter, April 8-9, 2017).

The orchestra's backstory for next season really started in October 2015 with the debut of Francis, only the fourth music director in the orchestra's history, which is approaching a half-century. By a rough head count on opening nights at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, audiences for Francis' preconcert lectures have virtually doubled in four months.

Francis' talks carry an informal air, the music director and a co-presenter — sometimes it's operations director Edward Parsons, sometimes a guest musician — seated on plain chairs and holding microphones. Invariably, Francis sets the scene with broad strokes about the mood created by the evening's music, then weaves in biographical and historical context for the composer's life and times.

Recorded snippets of the music float in on cue, illustrating points of emphasis. I have found these talks indispensable, not only to review the concerts but to enjoy them. The orchestra is warming to Francis, and so are audiences.

With Francis firmly in place, the orchestra has been able to make some new hires. These include principal oboe John Upton, who will play Mozart's Oboe Concerto (Jan. 21-22). Another solo highlight comes when concertmaster Jeffrey Multer plays Beethoven's Violin Concerto (Dec. 2-4). Besides the extravagant Cirque opening, the season's nine pops concerts include fetes to Ray Charles and Motown (Oct. 28-30), Ella Fitzgerald (April 21-23, 2017), the American Songbook (Cole Porter to Prince, Irving Berlin to Bob Dylan, May 12-14, 2017) and Mardi Gras (Feb. 24-26, 2017).

Bowie fans can get a dose of inspiration from the late icon in The Music of David Bowie (Brent Havens conducting, Feb. 3). Havens conducts a similar tribute with The Music of Journey (May 5, 2017).

The heart of the season still lies with the Masterworks, designed this year to contrast Russian and French musical heritages. "I have always been fascinated by the artistic relationships between countries," Francis said. "Russia and France have particularly enjoyed a long, intimate ­— and occasionally complicated — accord. There is something about the mixture of Russian passion and French flair that is so magnetic. Hear the fervor of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff alongside the refined subtlety of Ravel and Debussy; the revolutionary insurgence of Stravinsky and Shostakovich alongside the elegant elan of Saint-Saens and Berlioz. The compositional schools may have been different, but when combined together — well, the fusion is positively electric."

For tickets and information, go to floridaorchestra.org.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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