The Florida Orchestra has been planning its 50th anniversary season all year and the party is on.
The theme is celebration.
Highlights include a jubilant opening concert, the Carmina Burana (Oct. 6), with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay; Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet paired with West Side Story, as the world marks 100 years since the birth of Leonard Bernstein (Feb. 16-18); the return of longtime music director Jahja Ling, conducting Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 (Jan. 6-7); and the orchestra's first performance of Verdi's Requiem since 2002 (April 20-22).
And that's just the masterworks series. The 2017-2018 season also includes the rollout of matinee concerts at the Mahaffey Theater, the world premiere of a major commissioned work and another expansion of the popular Coffee concert series. The lineup pays homage to old favorites and new works, and also showcases some of the orchestra's best as selected by Michael Francis, 40, who will be entering his third year as music director.
"Some of these pieces that he's picked are really virtuosic, that give the orchestra a chance to basically show their stuff," said orchestra spokeswoman Kelly Smith. "It's kind of giving them a time to say, 'Hey, it's been 50 years with this fantastic orchestra, let it rip.' "
Roots of the current orchestra branch to both sides of Tampa Bay. The Tampa side began in the 1930s under the federal Works Progress Administration. That project led to the Tampa Symphony Orchestra, which in 1959 changed its name to the Tampa Philharmonic. Meanwhile, community and city orchestras merged in 1950 to create the St. Petersburg Symphony.
On Nov. 23, 1966, on a boat in the middle of Tampa Bay, leaders of the two orchestras signed a letter of intent to merge. "There was pride for the entire Tampa Bay area, not one city over another," the then-St. Petersburg Times noted.
The Florida Gulf Coast Symphony was formally incorporated on Nov. 2, 1967. The name officially changed to the Florida Orchestra in 1984.
A major event in the orchestra's history came in 1987, when guest conductor Jahja Ling took the baton for Jean Sibelius' complex Symphony No. 2. Ling's impressive performance in what was then the Florida Orchestra's 20th anniversary season led to his appointment as music director in 1988, a position he held through 2002.
Now in his 13th and final season as music director for the San Diego Symphony, Ling returns in January to again conduct Sibelius' No. 2 as well as Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, performed by his wife, pianist Jessie Chang of the San Diego Symphony.
Noteworthy solo performances are planned next season. James Ehnes will perform a violin concerto written for him by Oscar-nominated film composer James Newton Howard (Pretty Woman, The Hunger Games, The Dark Knight), part of the program led by Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 (May 4-6). Among those making Florida Orchestra debuts are violinist Alex Kerr in the program led by Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 (Dec. 1-2); trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger in HK Gruber's Aerial (Feb. 16-18); and Cuban pianist Aldo López-Gavilán in Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Feb. 23-25).
Jeffrey Multer, the orchestra's concertmaster, returns to perform Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 (Nov. 18-19); and Maximilian Hornung will play Dvorak's Cello Concerto (Jan. 19-20).
In perhaps the splashiest move of the season, the orchestra has commissioned an original work, as yet untitled but inspired by Florida. Composer Michael Ippolito was born and raised in Tampa, and counts folk and jazz music among his influences. Now in his early 30s, Ippolito has already been commissioned by the Chicago, Albany, Milwaukee and Juilliard symphony orchestras, and won numerous awards, including a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The orchestra will perform the world premiere of Ippolito's work as part of Dvorak's New World Symphony concert (Feb. 23-25).
Ticket prices, lowered in 2011 for masterworks and pops concerts, remain unchanged at $15-$45, Smith said.
This year also marks the rollout of family-friendly matinee concerts at the Mahaffey Theater. Five pops concerts will start at 2 p.m. Saturday, and five masterworks concerts will start at 2 p.m. Sunday. In most cases, the added matinee will take the place of a concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
And the orchestra is upping its popular Coffee concert series to five 11 a.m. Wednesday concerts at Ruth Eckerd Hall, in addition to the nine Wednesday morning concerts at the Mahaffey. Themes include Classical America (Nov. 9); Best of British (Jan. 31-Feb. 1), conducted by Francis, a British native and Lutz resident; and Musicians in the Spotlight (Jan. 10-11), with pops conductor Stuart Malina again holding the baton.
Conductor and arranger Jeff Tyzik leads off the pops season with a 1940s theme. Swing is the Thing (Oct. 13-15) features dancers and singers for tunes such as Tuxedo Junction and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, starring smooth-as-silk clarinetist Dave Bennett. Also scheduled are tributes to Rodgers and Hammerstein (Jan. 12-13); film composer Marvin Hamlisch (Nov. 10-11); Broadway tunes (April 27-29); and the Music of Star Trek and Star Wars (Feb. 9-11), with Francis conducting a playful intergalactic faceoff.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.