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Music for the masses

A festival of Rachmaninoff piano concertos is not exactly the pinnacle of creative excitement, but the Florida Orchestra's audience loves the warhorses. They're the comfort food of music.

So give the people what they want, or at least that's what music director Stefan Sanderling and the orchestra seemed to be saying Saturday night in Mahaffey Theater, with the first of three programs in January largely devoted to the Russian composer-pianist.

But you could do worse than Rachmaninoff, in the hands of some impressive soloists over the next few weeks, and Sanderling's pairing him with Ravel is potentially interesting. That was certainly true of the first half of Saturday's program, with works by each composer that were influenced by World War I.

Ravel's La Valse, composed right after the war, is a ghostly antitribute to Vienna, full of drunkenly lurching waltz passages, like the sound of a cafe orchestra blithely fiddling away while the world goes up in flames. The strings were suitably wild and crazy, but the brass and percussion were too heavy.

Lilya Zilberstein was the excellent soloist of the evening, starting with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4. This was the first work he completed after leaving Russia in the wake of the 1917 revolution, but not until some nine years later because his output as a composer dropped off when he had to make a living as a soloist.

The Fourth introduces numerous motifs, from swoony Hollywood violins to flashy pianistic display to some brooding interplay among soloist and orchestra, but it never really settles on a central idea. As brilliant as parts of it are, the concerto seems unclear about what it wants to be. Some critics ascribe this to the doubt and lack of confidence that afflicted European artists after the war, and in that respect, it was fascinating to hear next to the Ravel.

More than 25 years separated the Fourth from Rachmaninoff's masterpiece, the Piano Concerto No. 2, which premiered in 1901 and has been played constantly ever since. There was no doubt in his writing of the earlier concerto, right from the famous chordal progression and restless strings that kick it off.

Zilberstein, Russian born and now living in Germany, kept the rhythms smartly pressing forward, giving the big work a fine sense of coherence, and there was an elegant quality to her impossibly fast fingerwork.

To open the concert, Sanderling announced an unprogrammed work, Faure's Pavanne for orchestra, to be played in dedication to tsunami victims. It featured elegiac solos by Andrea Kaplan on flute and James Wilson on French horn.

The orchestra won't have its usual performance in Tampa on Monday, because the Broadway tour of Movin' Out needs the day to move into Morsani Hall at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.