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A little risk taking

If new work is any measure of vitality, then 2000 was a good year in the Tampa Bay area _ maybe one of the best ever.

In classical music, 2000 was marked by celebrations of a matched set of baroque and 20th century composers. It was a Bach year and a Copland year. Both had anniversaries (the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach's death, the 100th anniversary of Aaron Copland's birth), and their music was heard far and wide.

2000 was also the year when the country's most prominent symphony orchestras couldn't seem to find anyone to lead them. Vacancies are pending in the music directorships of the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

This game of high-level musical chairs extends to the Florida Orchestra, which also has an opening on the podium. Longtime music director Jahja Ling announced he was stepping down at the end of the season in 2002.

In theater, 2000 was the year when "Now and Forever" _ the ad slogan for Cats _ finally became moot. The kitty cantata closed on Broadway after a run of 7,485 performances that began in October 1982. It signaled the beginning of the end of the reign of the British pop musical, with Miss Saigon being the next scheduled to fold, in January.

If new work is any measure of vitality _ and I think it is _ then 2000 was a good year in the Tampa Bay area, maybe one of the best ever.

Symphonies by Robert Helps and David Carlson were premiered by the Florida Orchestra and Florida West Coast Symphony respectively. Joshua Bell, with the Florida Orchestra, premiered a work written for him, the West Side Story suite for violin and orchestra, arranged by William Brohn from Leonard Bernstein's score of the musical.

The debut of Webb's City: The Musical, with book by Bill Leavengood and music by Lee Ahlin, won raves from an audience who knew the story of St. Petersburg entrepreneur Doc Webb firsthand. In another musical theater first, a new stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (originally written for TV) premiered at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

Shakespeare, too, came in for some newfangled musical meddling in American Stage's disco version of Twelfth Night, in which Viola and Sebastian sported Travolta-style white suits, the priest was an Elvis imitator and Feste was a gender-bending chanteuse.

Nobody ever said new had to be good. But in a community where performing arts organizations have long been afraid to put on anything but the tamest, most conventional fare, it's bracing to see a little risk taking. Almost by definition, new work is going to produce more flops than hits.

One of my favorite performances of the year was also new, or at least new to the region, as the Master Chorale gave the Southeast premiere of African Sanctus, English composer/explorer David Fanshawe's remarkable setting of the Latin Mass for adult and children's choruses, rock band, two trumpets, piano and lots of drums.

Adding resonance to the occasion, Fanshawe himself, wearing a bush cap, was at the sound-mixing console, playing field tapes of music he gathered on a journey up the Nile in 1969. The whole thing was part spectacle, part prayer, and Jo-Michael Scheibe conducted a beautifully balanced performance.

The Florida Orchestra will never be accused of embracing the new as long as it keeps recycling the standard repertoire, but even it shows signs of loosening up. In addition to the Helps and Bernstein/Brohn premieres, the orchestra continued its unlikely, delightful romance with the classical compositions of rock genius Frank Zappa.

Resident conductor Thomas Wilkins led a second annual Zappa program by the orchestra and Bogus Pomp, a rhythm and blues band that plays only Zappa. In a fun spinoff, the legendary Persuasions performed new a cappella arrangements of Zappa songs in a concert with Bogus Pomp.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with the old when it's music by the likes of Mendelssohn or Schumann, Brahms or Prokofiev, and area orchestras brought some fresh talent to masterworks in 2000. One was a spectacular teenage pianist, Lang Lang, playing Prokofiev and Mendelssohn concertos with the Florida Orchestra. Lang has a major career in the making, and it was great to catch him on the way up.

Another young musician to follow is Susanna Henkel, a German violinist featured in the Brahms Double Concerto with her father, cellist Christoph Henkel, with Florida West Coast Symphony. The winner of major violin competitions and a rising star in Europe, she hasn't performed much in the United States, and it was a treat to hear her.

Local listeners heard a new version of Schumann's Konzertstuck for horns and orchestra, which the composer wrote for a quartet. The Florida Orchestra's horn section, made up of five players, rearranged the work to include them all. Section solidarity was part of the reason, but the fifth horn helped out with the demanding first horn part and added texture to the whole piece. If other orchestras give the arrangement a try, it could become the norm someday.

It has been encouraging to see the growth of Gorilla Theatre, which is strongly committed to new work. I Hear Music!: Songs of Burton Lane, The Toxic Wave, Theatre Hell!, Isadora _ none of Gorilla's new plays in the last year was a smashing success, and a couple were pretty bad, but the theater deserves credit for having the courage of its convictions. And the case can be made that exploration of the new pays off when returning to the classics, as in Gorilla's exemplary production of a pair of George Bernard Shaw one-acts, The Man of Destiny and Don Juan in Hell.

The finest single stage performance of the year was Monica Bishop Steele in Wit, Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of a John Donne scholar dying of cancer. Steele is a consummate actor. Five years ago, she was a glamorous socialite who broke your heart with her brittle beauty (in A.R. Gurney's Later Life), and this year she was a bald cancer patient who leavened her harrowing predicament with black humor (reciting "Death be not proud" while undergoing a pelvic exam). No matter what the role, she is deeply, movingly persuasive.

On the touring circuit, the best of the bunch was Ragtime, a musical for people who don't like musicals, with a score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (now taking their critical lumps on Broadway for Seussical). Heading a strong cast was Lawrence Hamilton as a ragtime pianist who turns to revolution in a doomed effort to wrest justice from a racist society.

There were also new bricks and mortar in the performing arts, with the reopening of a renovated and expanded Van Wezel Hall, a new acoustic shell for Ferguson Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the new Music Center at St. Petersburg Junior College. The Palladium, converted into a theater from a church, had its first full season.

In a sad note, the performing arts lost two key figures with the premature deaths of Bill Shepard, company stage manager of American Stage, and Craig Alpaugh, managing director of Gorilla Theatre. Bill and Craig were true men of the theater, and they are missed.

2000 had its share of bizarre occurrences. One came when a deafening alarm went off in the middle of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, forcing the Florida Orchestra, Master Chorale, soloists and a virtually full house to evacuate Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Another was when a stressed-out mental health counselor was charged with battery after an attack on a fellow ballet enthusiast for talking during a performance of The Nutcracker at Ruth Eckerd Hall _ which generated an outpouring of support in letters to the editor of the Times from people sick and tired of having performances ruined by noisemakers in the audience.

Only in Florida, land of the chad _ dimpled, pregnant or otherwise _ and the endless recount.

Art and life came together in electric fashion on the weekend after the election, when the full, agonizing, farcical dimension of the presidential deadlock was becoming clear. That's when poet James Tokley intoned the words of Abraham Lincoln _ "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history" _ in the Florida Orchestra's performance of Copland's Lincoln Portrait.

Tokley's richly theatrical reading of excerpts from Lincoln's letters and speeches was a compelling expression of the strength of American democracy, and I took heart from it in the weeks to come.

If the republic could survive the Civil War, surely it could survive a presidential election decided in court.