Beethoven's Choral Symphony is a towering work, a complex and weighty expression of passion and joy and idealism that develops an inexorable momentum as it builds toward a soaring finale. His First Symphony, on the other hand, is much lighter, a shapely and nimble affair that almost sparkles like a perfectly spinning top.
What a jolting juxtaposition it was to hear both works in the same evening.
Under music director Jahja Ling, the Florida Orchestra played Beethoven's first and last symphonies, a smart piece of programing to conclude the monthlong festival devoted to the composer's works.
Having played six all-Beethoven concerts since the festival's Feb. 5 opener, with three more performances to come, the orchestra is very much at home with the composer's vocabulary.
Ling is conducting with a fluent ease and alertness that is a pleasure to watch.
Symphony No. 1 opened the program. This work, which received its premiere in 1800, is what scholar Donald Francis Tovey called "a fitting farewell to the 18th century," because it incorporates themes of Mozart and Haydn. In the first movement, there's an echo of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. The final movement quotes one of Haydn's country dances.
However, there are hints in the First Symphony of more interesting things to come, a suggestion here and there of the darkness in later works. The composition also has some rapid string passages that are quite a challenge, but the musicians made them look and sound easy.
Symphony No. 9, which premiered in 1824, is one of Beethoven's two or three most famous pieces, because of its deployment of a chorus and soloists in Schiller's Ode to Joy in the final movement. It is an extravagant, 105-minute piece of music.
Throughout the first three movements, as Ling guided the orchestra along with some extraordinarily vigorous conducting, the level of anticipation rose. The Master Chorale, more than 140 singers strong, were arrayed across the back of the stage; the four soloists come on after the third movement.
In the fourth movement, which was introduced by a startling note of dissonance, there were some very fine cello and bass passages, the best playing from these sections heard this season.
The singers performed beautifully. Bass-baritone Edward White and tenor Tod Kowallis turned in fine solos. Together, White, Kowallis, soprano Christine Brewer and mezzo-soprano Marilyn Michael-Evans were nothing short of eloquent as a team. The Master Chorale, too, was in good form.
The Florida Orchestra with the Master Chorale and vocal soloists, conducted by music director Jahja Ling, in concert Friday night at Mahaffey Theater. Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 and Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (Choral), both by Beethoven. Repeated tonight at Mahaffey, Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall and Monday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.