TAMPA — There's a point in every Ferris wheel ride, just past the zenith, when the carriage swings out and your stomach lifts and you notice the lights of the town below. That's the feeling I get, at least, from a Strauss waltz, the kind the Florida Orchestra is playing this weekend in "New Year's Waltz."
Though they have a sense of euphoria in common, waltzes are actually a lot more complicated than Ferris wheels. If you didn't fully appreciate that, you will after seeing this arrangement of five composers designed to showcase a range of moods and temperaments as wide as human emotion can run. The concert opened Friday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, and featured cellist Maximilian Hornung in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra.
On a scale of enjoyments, hearing a superb musician perform live and in complete control of an instrument ranks pretty high. Hornung, a German virtuoso who recently turned 30, is already that musician. His performance, together with inspired responses from the strings and woodwinds, brought out capabilities in the cello Tchaikovsky had in mind when he wrote the piece. Solo sections of the Variations race from slow and elegant to furious; the tempo shifting in Hornung's hands from a familiar waltz rhythm to something eight times as fast, and back. The mood was volatile, like the tension between a couple on the dance floor.
For an encore (there had to be an encore, and the entire orchestra was prepared), he played Victor Herbert's Pulcinello (for solo violoncello & string orchestra).
The program began with Maurice Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, seven contrasting waltzes that propel the evening's theme forward, from gentle to dissonant to hypnotic. After the Tchaikovsky came the Johann Strauss Jr. opus, Wiener Blut, which was used in movie scenes from Titanic depicting first-class passengers. An amazing contrast follows.
Heinz Karl Gruber, a contemporary composer known professionally as HK Gruber, wrote the Charivari as a satirical or even caustic response to a romanticized view of his native Austria. The grandeur of Strauss gives way to a discordant clash, noisy eruptions right down to a percussionist rattling a huge piece of tin to a pace that alternates between polka and waltz. The term "charivari" refers to a custom dating back to the Middle Ages in which townspeople mocked couples they considered illegitimate in one way or another by gathering in front of their houses and rattling pots and pans, a form of public censure. The piece ends with a chilling echo of the Wiener Blut, indicating in the composer's own words that "the uglier facts of history cannot always be glossed over; and except perhaps for the tourist trade, there's nothing to be gained from obsessively harking back to the 'good old days.' "
The concert ended with Richard Strauss' suite from his opera, Der Rosenkavalier. It is the most intellectual of the pieces, and makes a fitting summary of the variations the orchestra had rolled out through the evening.
"When you think about the waltz, it's two people spinning together," music director Michael Francis said in a pre-concert lecture. "Spinning in a circle around the room. Upon an earth that is spinning."
The intent of the New Year's Waltz, he said, is to demonstrate that "the simplest of dance forms can provide a panoply of greatest understanding of human life, and all its joys and foibles."
By that measure alone, the concert is a success, not to mention a stellar performance by Hornung, who evokes rare sounds from one of our most evocative instruments.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.