TAMPA — The suffering artist is a cliché. It's tempting to dismiss, because dismissing a cliché sounds smart and we love to sound smart.
But there is no way to listen to Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, better known as the Sinfonia Eroica, and not connect its tenderness and shattering intensity with events in the composer's life. Friday night at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, the Florida Orchestra took on the Eroica, a symphony that changed the way the public understood music, as it nears the close of the season. It is a reverent and serious interpretation with which I can find no fault.
At the same time, the musical ambition in it is so stirring, so relentlessly searching, it would be difficult for any orchestra to capture it perfectly. For that very reason, the choice of music director Michael Francis to bookend his first season with famously difficult works (he debuted Oct. 2 with Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3) says all you need to know about him and the potential of the orchestra in years to come. This is Francis' last concert this season as conductor.
The four movements reflect a "hero's journey," and was composed in 1803 as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, for whom he had originally named the work. The infatuation did not last. Beethoven allegedly tore the title page in half once told that Napoleon had declared himself emperor. It did not matter. The theme of a mythological quest was universal, its human subjects interchangeable.
The orchestra methodically lays tile in the first movement, which hints of coming battles, creating the musical floor on which the rest of the symphony will stand. If it seems a bit workmanlike, a bit restrained, it is also clear that nothing about this approach is accidental. These musicians clearly have given every part of the composition a lot of thought.
The second movement has a funereal quality, evoking grand state funerals, and here the method begins to reveal itself. A solo by principal oboe John Upton sets the tone. But before and after, including a mirthful third movement and a triumphant finale, it is the strings that stand out. That's the way it's written, but the string musicians — particularly the cello and bass sections — make powerful use of their role as conveyors of strong sadnesses and the bittersweet reconciliations that follow sadness.
While historians inevitably cite the composer's enchantment and subsequent disillusionment with Napoleon as critical to the piece, most also mention a personal crisis that was likely even more relevant, namely the continuing diminution of his hearing. In 1803, the same year he composed the Eroica, he wrote a letter to his two brothers from the Austrian village of Heiligenstadt. The Heiligenstadt Testament reveals for the first time the deafness that had been worsening for years, isolating Beethoven from society and turning his talent into a desperate calling.
"A little more and I would have ended my life," he wrote. "Only my art held me back."
At the very least, the hearing loss also coincided with the broadening of his orchestral palate and may have caused it. With its in-your-face dissonances and dirge-like sequences, the Eroica was panned as overlong and impenetrable after its premiere in 1805. Beethoven's closest friends countered that the music was too sophisticated for the masses, but that they too would understand it in a few thousand years.
In fact, it only took a couple. By then, critics had reconsidered the role of the artist merely as an entertainer, and music has never been the same since.
The orchestra opened with a contemporary piece. John Adams' City Noir, his homage to the film noir genre in Los Angeles in the late 1940s and early 1950s, also showed musical mettle and diversity. An obvious highlight is solo saxophonist Timothy McAllister, who lifted the orchestra almost single-handedly with dazzling flights of imagination reminiscent of Charlie Parker. This "30-minute symphony" portrays the city as an organism, only partially human, as it ventures from the police chases to the lonely lights in the windows of apartments seen from the alley, and the lives behind those windows.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.