TAMPA — At a symphony orchestra concert, always stay for the second half.
That's because the music director almost always pulls out a masterpiece of the genre, not dependent on any programming conceit, and proceeds to show how masterfully well the band can play. It may give you goosebumps.
That was the case Friday evening with the Florida Orchestra's performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The music of the first half was meant to be full of portents. Okay, maybe. But in Pictures, conductor Michael Francis brought out the truth that technical mastery and dramatic restraint, sustained over time, is the best predictor of a deeply satisfying musical experience.
More on this in a minute.
The featured piece of the evening, Sergei Rachmaninoff's The Bells, ably joined by the ever-reliable Master Chorale, turned out to be lush but listless.
Rachmaninoff's musical poem in four parts, with soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, is based loosely on the famous 19th-century poem by Edgar Allan Poe of the same name. I say "loosely," because Rachmaninoff used a Russian translation of the poem for the words, whose original value comes chiefly from the alliterative and resonant pealing of Poe's poem. The English translation of the Russian translation, which was projected on a screen above the orchestra and chorus, is even further removed, as conductor Francis acknowledged.
Had Rachmaninoff created something compelling and new, the literary difference wouldn't matter. As it is, the music contains little of the dramatic urgency or melodic felicity that has made the early 20th-century Romantic composer so beloved.
There were high points in the performance — long, legato phrasings; the percussive crispness of the celeste — but low points too. Tenor Kevin Ray could barely be heard, at least deep in the mezzanine where I sat, and the "booming, clanging, raving, twanging" of the text during the most dramatic movement was scarcely discernible in Rachmaninoff's music.
Many of the audience closest to the stage gave a standing ovation. In my section, only a few.
The opening piece, Prospero's Rooms — premiered in 2013 by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Christopher Rouse — also is based a Poe work, in this case his short story Masque of the Red Death. As Francis described it in his delightfully droll remarks beforehand, a rich prince invites his wealthiest friends to his castle to avoid a plague sweeping the land below. He hosts a masked ball — on the condition that no one wear red. Suddenly a figure in red appears, and everyone dies.
"Yeah," said Francis.
The music is dissonant and ominous and fully dramatic — in waltz time, no less. I liked it.
Only in the Mussorgsky piece, however, did the creepy portentousness of Rouse's and Rachmaninoff's music find its full flower. Mussorgsky wrote the suite originally for piano alone in 1874, and its angular harmonies are distinctly Russian. Maurice Ravel's orchestration in 1922, however, turned it into an orchestral showpiece.
From the opening "Promenade," with its clear and sonorous brass, every instrument is given its chance. Rich strings, articulate winds, spot-on percussion — all had expressive moments in the evolution of the piece. Francis expertly managed the growing tension — never rushed, but never dragging either— until its profound and stately climax.
Francis described the emotional arc of the evening as "darkness into light." I'll go with that.