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Visual aids help orchestra present study in contrasts

Published Sep. 27, 2005

The Florida Orchestra's 1999-2000 masterworks series began and ended with visual aids. The first program featured Holst's The Planets performed to film taken of the planets by NASA spacecraft, and the last one had supertitles projected above the stage to indicate what section was being played in Strauss' An Alpine Symphony and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

Jahja Ling, making his first appearance on the podium since announcing he'll be stepping down as music director after next season, conducted Sunday's masterworks season finale at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

The supertitles _ 22 for the Strauss, 14 for the Stravinsky _ were cued by artistic administrator Jeff Woodruff, equipped with scores and slide projector at the back of the hall. The supertitles were especially helpful in following along in Strauss' tone poem that depicts the ascent of an Alpine peak and a ferocious storm. In some ways, it's a preposterous work, a sprawling orgy of romantic note-spinning that calls for a huge orchestra. There were double complements of most brass and winds and some wild percussion.

It's too bad Strauss never tried his hand at film music, but plenty of other composers who ended up in Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s obviously learned a few tricks from him. An Alpine Symphony is loaded with the kind of literal-minded, cornball scoring that used to be de rigeur on screen, such as the tuned cowbells in a section called In a Mountain Pasture, the swelling brass and celestial strings in On the Summit or the ominous notes in cello and double bass in Calm Before the Storm.

Thematically, the program was a study in contrasts. Strauss was the last of the great German romantics. It was Stravinsky who came along and transformed the classical music vocabulary with works like The Rite of Spring, whose first performance in 1913 in Paris created a scandal.

Today, of course, Stravinsky's masterpiece is familiar from its use in Fantasia and other pop contexts. However, a good performance will still bring out something fresh. On Sunday, the orchestra at first seemed a bit tired from the effort of carrying off the Strauss and then diving right into another big opus, but the focus soon sharpened.

The sound of Stravinsky's orchestra is so different from that of Strauss, and it's not just a matter of different harmonics or orchestrations. The rhythmic complexity of The Rite of Spring has an effect in creating some startling tone colors, as in the hard-driving percussion in Glorification of the Chosen One. With the sacrificial dance at the end _ where the time signature changes in virtually every measure _ you can feel in your bones how this pulsating, sensuous music changed the language of the symphony orchestra forever.

The orchestra winds up the season with a pops program of movie music composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.