Monday, February 19, 2018
Stage

Florida Orchestra teams up with Shakespeare

ST. PETERSBURG — Voices and lights in the dark opened the Florida Orchestra's concert Friday morning at Mahaffey Theater. "Speak! Speak! I charge thee speak!" one of the voices cried out.

It's Denmark, and the ghost of Hamlet's father is on the castle battlements, but he will not speak. After this scene from Shakespeare's tragedy was performed by a quartet in black — Gavin Hawk, Meg Heimstead, Joe Parra and Brian Shea — the orchestra behind the actors launched into Tchaikovsky's Hamlet.

As part of St. Petersburg's Shakespeare Festival, the orchestra and American Stage have produced an entertaining matchup of the Bard and Tchaikovsky that also includes two more of the composer's tone poems, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet, with the actors also performing from those plays. Andrew Grams was guest conductor of the program, which was staged by Todd Olson, artistic director of the theater, and they kept the action moving, with no awkward pauses between drama and music. It helped that the actors, using face mikes and wearing costumes (especially fanciful for The Tempest), are among the best in the Tampa Bay area, and that Tchaikovsky's music is so catchy.

Highlights included the extensive oboe solo in Hamlet, played by Xiaodi Liu, occupying the principal's chair this weekend; Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, spoken by Hawk, in Romeo and Juliet; and the booming bass drum (played by David Coash) in all the stormy music.

Grams, interim resident conductor of the orchestra in 2007-08, did something I haven't seen since Jahja Ling was music director. Instead of massing the first and second violins to the conductor's left, as they usually are, he divided the sections, with the firsts remaining to his left and moving the seconds to his right. He had the double basses at the back of the orchestra to his left instead of their customary position to his right.

Conductors often divide the violins in Mozart and Haydn symphonies for antiphonical effect, but having them across from each other is less common for the big Technicolor sound of Tchaikovsky. Some musicians may have felt it presumptuous for a guest conductor — Grams is also a fine violinist — to fiddle with their seating, but I thought the change freshened things up. The violas, for example, were heard more clearly.

Unlike previous Friday morning concerts, this one had a good-sized turnout of more than 1,100, including several hundred schoolchildren who were bused there under the orchestra's education program. Tchaikovsky is not a bad introduction to classical music, because many people fall under his spell early.

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

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