TAMPA — Since taking over as music director in 2015, Michael Francis has articulated a strong interest in expanding the reach of the Florida Orchestra, geographically and culturally.
"The Dalí Experience," a multimedia collaboration with the Dalí Museum, is the orchestra's latest foray in that kaleidoscopic direction. If the orchestra succeeds in broadening its presence through the Tampa Bay area and beyond, this concert will be remembered as a conceptual step forward.
The event, which opened at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, entails risks on a number of levels. Elements include celebrated flamenco guitarist Cañizares, Cuban-born mezzo-soprano Yetzabel Arias, paintings and sketches of Salvador Dalí and a ballet. Its opening Friday in the Straz's Morsani Hall, a better fit for staging and grandeur of ambition than the adjacent Ferguson Hall, meant concertgoers in a relatively sparse crowd could relax with plenty of elbow room while taking in a montage of projected Dalí images, dancers from the University of South Florida School of Theatre and Dance, and the warmth and richness of Arias' singing from a balcony during The Three-Cornered Hat, Manuel de Falla's ballet.
Dalí factors into each of four orchestral pieces performed, either by his direct participation (the visuals include Dalí's illustrations for the book Le tricorne and a backdrop he created for the ballet) and a nod to Spanish musical influences in Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra by Joaquín Rodrigo (led by Cañizares); or indirectly, in the surrealism of the final work, Maurice Ravel's La Valse.
The notion of the orchestra and the museum collaborating in a concert arose in a conversation between Francis and Hank Hine, executive director of the Dalí. Hine will reflect on those events in a pre-concert conversation today.
An attention-getting sense of difference should stand out long before the evening's first note, in the scores of LED lamps on music stands on an otherwise darkened stage.
The lowered lighting accommodates a projected painting for the Prelude and Liebestod, from the culmination of Richard Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde. Dalí conceived the image as a curtain backdrop for his ballet Tristan Fou, which he set to Wagner's music. This image of the ghoulishly distorted, ill-fated 12th-century lovers sharpens in the dark, lording over the orchestra musicians. Arias was magnificent, and the orchestra's sweeping strings, piercing flute and sustained intensity conveyed an unfulfilled longing. The opera was Dalí's favorite and was playing by his bedside when he died.
The Rodrigo concerto took the mood in a jolly flamenco direction. Cañizares drove the rhythmic, dance-like pulse for over 22 minutes. He got some help from the musicians in fiesta garb, who supplied the hand clapping and the occasional verbal calls. He returned to applause and played a generous encore, much of which he improvised.
The Three-Cornered Hat, a ballet based on a folktale, was also a treat. Dancers choreographed by USF ballet professor Paula Nuñez delightfully took the story about a mayor's desire for a miller's wife though two acts, all on a proscenium. Arias contributed solos from the balcony.
After all that, a Johann Strauss tribute may seem like an afterthought. Instead, it was the night's brilliant moment.
Ravel set the work aside during World War I, uncomfortable now about toasting Vienna. He completed it in 1920 under a much different vision, one Sergei Diaghilev had commissioned as a ballet. (The Russian impresario changed his mind after hearing it, and Ravel never spoke to him again.)
The 12-minute piece brims with dark satire, one that parallels the evolution of the composer. The waltz of Strauss' time begins to fade away, a radio station losing its signal. The tempo picks up a little and then a lot, the machinery now out of control. The orchestra snapped its jaws at the ironies, taking advantage of a chance to toast itself, at long last.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.