Three different sorts of musical stories comprised the Florida Orchestra's concert Friday evening in Tampa, one more deeply pleasing than the rest.
The most unusual was Blue Cathedral, a piece written by Jennifer Higdon in 1999 to commemorate both the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute, where she teaches, and the premature death of her younger brother. (Higdon was born in 1962.)
It certainly has some interesting textures — muted strings coming into bloom, crystalline bells and somber chimes, a playful conversation between flute and clarinet. It is a collection of translucences and sonorous waves. At times I was reminded of the soft-focus flowers in a kaleidoscope.
But the cinematic resonances didn't end there. This is program music, telling the story of a physical and spiritual journey upward through an imaginary cathedral in the sky, as Higdon describes in detail in a program note. When the brass comes in, one might be forgiven for thinking briefly of the movie scores of John Williams. As performed Friday night, it was interesting but not necessarily compelling.
The most familiar was Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, a lush and schmaltzy 19th century drama full of portents and adamant declarations. It's been popular for generations, although to my taste it's a bit long-winded and repetitious. (Years ago, my mother kept an 8-track tape of the piece in her car, where it played more or less on a continuous loop. The joke was, when you turned it on, you couldn't tell whether you were closer to the beginning, the middle or the end.)
This, too, is a musical narrative, taken loosely from The Thousand and One Nights, the tale of an Arabian princess who forestalled her execution by entertaining her husband, the sultan, with a different cliff-hanging tale every night, until he finally abandoned his plan to kill her. Maybe that's why it's so long-winded.
The orchestra certainly played it well, though, with nary a wandering of attention. A piece like this really demonstrates the orchestra's ensemble skill. Under the direction of guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, the full stage of musicians played with dramatic suppleness as they maneuvered between sweeping gestures, sudden mood changes and sustained climaxes. Through her facial expressions and precise gestures, Chen enticed the orchestra into its energetic and disciplined best.
The most sublime was Bela Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3, written in 1945 just months before the composer's death. It tells no story but its own, a lively and sometimes serene conversation of modal melodies and percussive effects.
Guest pianist Jeremy Denk was terrific. His touch was perfect, his phrasing poetic, as his facial expressions (round open mouth; gazing upward) mirrored the playful insouciance of Bartok's music. The middle movement, marked Adagio religioso, revealed the drama that can come from a simple, quiet melody, beautifully voiced, supported by chords that gradually grow in harmonic complexity. Throughout the piece, pianist and orchestra played as if breathing the same breath, and the finale came with a precise and vigorous flourish.
For an encore, Denk played an eloquent piece by Johann Sebastian Bach, demonstrating yet again that the most abstract music is what pleases my ear the most.