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Theater adds ambience to music

What a lovely sight it was Thursday night to see the Florida Orchestra on the stage of the Tampa Theatre. There's a visual component to listening to music, and the works of J.C. Bach, Elgar and Stravinsky took on rare warmth when heard in the ornately decorated 1926 theater, a fantasy "Florida Mediterranean" environment of statuary under a starry ceiling.

Resident conductor Thomas Wilkins led the first concert in memory by the orchestra in the theater as part of a miniseries he is calling "On the Fringe," though the repertoire was more conventional than that name suggests. Still, the centerpiece of the evening, Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale) benefited immeasurably from being performed in the atmospheric theater, whose acoustics seemed first rate from a seat in the balcony.

American composer/conductor Lukas Foss said The Soldier's Tale was Stravinsky's most original work _ high praise indeed for a piece by the composer of The Firebird, The Rite of Spring, Pulcinella and so many other modernist masterpieces. He wrote it during World War I when he was living in Switzerland, and the ingenuity of the music is like the creation of a mad genius watchmaker.

The work's originality lies in its lean textures _ there are only seven instruments _ and its theatricality, with a pair of actors relating the supernatural yarn of a soldier on leave who encounters the devil. The soldier strikes an unfortunate bargain that results in his fiddle ending up in the hands of the devil, and Stravinsky's score includes some wild violin music, superbly rendered by Stewart Kitts. The performance gained momentum as it went along, and the syncopation of drum and violin in the finale was truly eerie.

Patrick Doyle acted the devil with relish, hamming it up like a B-movie villain, but James Rodgers' narrator was too bland and occasionally hard to hear, despite being amplified.

The first half of the program was occupied by two chamber orchestra works. Johann Christian Bach is the least appreciated of J.S. Bach's three composer sons, but his Sinfonia in D major is full of beautiful wind textures, such as the tuneful flute duet in the second movement, deftly played by Catherine Wendtland Landmeyer and Daphne Soellner.

Elgar's Serenade in E minor for strings had a nostalgic quality through the first two movements and then shifted into high gear in the finale, with a depth of intensity and expressiveness that was surprising for a composer not associated with displays of emotion.

The orchestra's foray into alternative venues continues at 7:30 tonight with Wilkins conducting a "Blue Jeans Classics" concert at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg.