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At midpoint, Beethoven festival is upbeat

For tonight's Beethoven festival concert, it's as if the Florida Orchestra put in a call to central casting for a guest conductor who looks the part. At well over 6 feet tall, Otto-Werner Mueller is an imposing figure at the podium, and he has a stern, unsmiling visage that genuinely deserves to be called craggy. Mueller, a trainer of conductors at the Juilliard School, is the very picture of central European discipline as he guides the orchestra through the ecstasy and agony of Beethoven.

With pianist Claude Frank featured on the Emperor Concerto, perhaps the most popular work of its kind ever composed, tonight's performance comes at the midpoint of the orchestra's monthlong immersion in Beethoven. It's a good time to sift through my notes and share a few things that have made an impression.

Under music director Jahja Ling, the orchestra kicked off its nine-concert festival schedule with the best performance I've heard so far this season. The Fifth Symphony and Piano Concerto No. 1, with pianist John O'Conor, were both wonderful, but I must admit it was Leonore Overture No. 3 that really knocked me out. The overture has been called the first tone poem, and it struck me as a nearly perfect piece of instrumental music, with some dramatic offstage trumpet calls.

O'Conor's recital at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center Playhouse was an interesting example of expectations defied. The virtuoso Irish pianist is best known for his performance of Beethoven's sonatas, but his playing of them seemed a bit humdrum; he even muffed a note in the Pathetique Sonata.

On the other hand, O'Conor's performance of the unfamiliar Six Bagatelles for Piano, Op. 126 was a revelation. Written about the time Beethoven was working on Symphony No. 9 and Missa Solemnis, these small pieces functioned as snapshots of the composer's various moods on any given day, from wryly humorous to furious and even violent.

The practice of a conductor talking from onstage to the audience is taboo in many circles, but variations on such a listener-friendly approach can enhance a performance. That's what I think after hearing Charles Carroll, a retired music professor, speak during the intermission of the performance by the Metropolitan Arts Trio at Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church in Clearwater. Delivered from the pulpit, Carroll's informal remarks put the music into a useful historical context. The piano, violin and cello trio played with a beautiful rapport.

Has the festival been a success from a business standpoint? Orchestra officials seem to think so and say it'll break even financially.

The opening concert by the orchestra on a Wednesday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall drew better than expected; an overflow crowd showed up for the O'Conor recital; 400 people attended the Florida Orchestra String Quartet's afternoon concert last Sunday at Eckerd College; and the four upcoming performances of the Ninth Symphony are virtually sold out.

On the other hand, there was a disappointing turnout _ fewer than 1,000 _ for the orchestra's concert that featured violinist Miriam Fried at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

Because the orchestra has a new team of managers, who inherited a lot of problems from the previous regime, the festival has suffered from a somewhat tossed-together quality. Under the circumstances, management has done an admirable job in presenting a variety of chamber works to complement the symphonic music, but some important aspects of Beethoven have been neglected.

For example, the most exciting development involving the composer in recent years has been the performance of his works by the authentic-instrument movement, but you'd never know it from any of the presentations in the festival.

Artistically, the focus on Beethoven has put the orchestra's strengths on display to good effect. There's a vivid, almost theatrical directness in its performance of these essential works, and I think it comes from Ling's deployment of the brass and winds. They _ along with the percussion section _ are playing at a high level, and the conductor brings them to the fore in the orchestral mix.

The strings suffer at times from a certain raggedness in ensemble, and I'd like to hear an overall sound with more weight and depth from them, but there are also times when they play amazingly well.

Finally, I haven't seen Stephen Breslow's play about Beethoven, A Quartet From 1812, which was scheduled to be staged Friday night and again Sunday night at the Brad Cooper Gallery in Ybor City. But I've read the play and talked about it with the playwright. Its premise is that Beethoven's tormented personality was shaped by the alcoholism of his father.

Yes, the idea is provocative, but I found it intriguing to imagine Beethoven in thoroughly contemporary terms, as defined by the likes of John Bradshaw and others in the movements spawned by Alcoholics Anonymous and Alanon: the protean composer as an adult child of an alcoholic.

Accepting the premise, it's not so far-fetched to ask that if there had been 12-step programs at the turn of the 19th century, would we have Beethoven's music today?

MUSIC PREVIEW

Otto-Werner Mueller conducts the Florida Orchestra, with pianist Claude Frank, in Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 (Emperor), Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 and the Overture to Coriolanus, Op. 62, all by Beethoven. The concert is tonight at 8 at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center; tickets are $15-$26; call 221-1045 in Tampa, (800) 955-1045.

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