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If you’re going to pick a year to pay tribute to Ludwig van Beethoven, the 250th anniversary of his birth is a pretty good one. But it’s far from the only reason to salute the composer Michael Francis calls the greatest who ever lived.
“There’s no composer that’s not influenced by him,” said the Florida Orchestra’s music director. “Something about that music, and about that man, about what he dealt with. It just taps into the human psyche in a more universal way than any other composer.”
Francis is big on giving audiences a better sense of the stories behind the music, and in Beethoven, the star of the orchestra’s 2019-20 season, he sees angles that are especially relevant to modern audiences. Beethoven composed symphonies about war (his Seventh), revolution (his Fifth), heroism (his Third), the coming together of humanity (his Ninth) — "these are massive topics of life,” Francis said.
Moreover, Beethoven struggled to create his masterpieces — unlike, say, Mozart, from whom genius flowed like the breeze — which is something audiences of every generation can relate to. Even when it may seem like we as a society have never struggled less.
“Perhaps things come too easy for us,” he said. “Communication is simple. Distraction is everywhere. It’s very easy for us to be involved in the fatuousness of life, just the small things, without actually taking time to fail, to fail again, to keep failing, to keep going, to keep struggling, to keep pushing through. That sense of perseverance is in some ways still there, of course, but in other ways, for most people, our life is now easier. We can have food delivered, we can have anything delivered, we can pick up a phone, we can be entertained and distracted with the press of a button. So how do we tackle those deep subjects and keep going with them, and persevering with them in the way that Beethoven did? He wrestled like Jacob with God. It wasn’t an easy thing. And that’s a great lesson for young people.”
In keeping with that spirit, the orchestra is pushing itself to produce a properly Beethoven-sized tribute. Among the dozen or so Beethoven works they’ll perform this season are his Third, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth symphonies (the remaining five, Francis said, should come in 2020-21). The Fifth, in particular, will be a monumental highlight come May. The orchestra is performing a Mahler arrangement utilizing more than a dozen extra members, and bookending it with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy.
“When I tell people about that all over the world, their jaws just drop, they can’t believe how crazy and massive that concert is,” Francis said. “It’s going to be a real tour de force for the orchestra.”
Francis also wants this season to highlight “the Beethovens of today,” including Eric Whitacre, who will conduct his own immersive Deep Field in November; and Mason Bates, whose Mothership will be featured on the orchestra’s opening weekend.
Francis said the orchestra will continue presenting ambitious collaborations, including a presentation of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella with Tampa City Ballet in January; and a second program with St. Petersburg artist Geff Strik, who painted visuals for Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht in March. Strik is creating artwork to accompany Strauss’ Don Quixote in October.
“That’s another example of us making a mark in the right way to keep classical music true to the music, but also engaging it and bringing it to life in new ways,” he said. “It’s another way of breaking down those barriers and enriching the understanding of the music for people who do like the music. It’s going to be wonderful.”
Here are some highlights of the Florida Orchestra’s 2019-20 season. Most performances take place at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa and Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Times and ticket prices vary. (727) 892-3337. floridaorchestra.org.
Opening night (Sept. 27-29): Includes Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Beethoven’s Lenore Overture No. 3, Mason Bates’s Mothership and Ravel’s Bolero. Michael Francis conducts; Aldo Lopez-Gavilan is the featured pianist.
Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (Oct. 11-13): Includes Strauss’ Don Quixote. Francis conducts; Maximilian Hourning is the featured cellist.
Deep Field: A Cosmic Experience (Nov. 8-10): Featuring Eric Whitacre conducting his own Lux Arumque, Equus and Deep Field; plus Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Copland’s Quiet City. Featuring the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay.
Winter Dreams: Tchaikovsky and Sibelius (Nov. 15-16): Includes Vivian Fung’s Fanfare, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1. Daniel Black conducts; Benjamin Beilman is the featured violinist.
Mozart and Tchaikovsky (Dec. 6-8): Includes Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. Francis conducts, Natalie Hoe is the featured clarinet.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (Jan. 17-19): Includes Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel Intro/Wedding March and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Francis conducts, Gilles Vonsattel is the featured pianist.
American Masters (Feb. 14 and 16): Includes Bernstein’s Candide Overture, Christopher Theofanidis’ Symphony No. 1, Philip Glass’ Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Principal guest conductor Stuart Malina conducts; Rascher Saxophone Quartet guests.
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (Feb. 21-23): Includes Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and Violin Concerto and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Lary Rachleff conducts; Simone Lamsma is the featured violinist.
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (March 6-8): Includes Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. Francis conducts; Joyce Yang is the featured pianist.
Bach's St. John Passion (March 22): Francis conducts with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay.
Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (April 3-5): Includes Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer conducts and is featured.
Beethoven and Paganini (April 17-19): Includes Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. Vladimir Kulenovic conducts; Augustin Hadelich is featured on violin.
Beethoven’s Fifth: Darkness to Light (May 1-3): Includes Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Mahler’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Francis conducts.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (May 22-24): Includes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and more. Francis conducts; Dejan Lazic is the featured pianist.
POPS AND MORE
Revolution: Music of the Beatles (Oct. 4-6): Featuring rare photos along with principal pops conductor Jeff Tyzik’s arrangements.
Pops in the Park (Oct. 19-20): Daniel Black conducts at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg and River Tower Park in Tampa.
Latin Pops (Oct. 25-26): Including songs by Santana, Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin and more. Matt Catingub conducts.
The Music of the Rolling Stones: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards 1969 (Nov. 22): Brent Havens conducts selections from Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed, along with other hits, accompanied by a full rock band.
Ghostbusters in Concert (Nov. 23): Peter M. Bernstein conducts as the film plays on a big screen.
Holiday Pops (Dec. 13-15): Black conducts.
Handel’s Messiah (Dec. 19-20): Francis conducts with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay.
Lush Life: Ellington and Strayhorn (Jan. 10-11): Featuring collaborative standards by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, including Take the 'A' Train and Chelsea Bridge. Byron Stripling conducts.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi in Concert (Jan. 25): The orchestra performs as the film plays on a big screen.
Sing Out Tampa Bay (Jan. 31): Francis conducts.
Annual Gala (Feb. 1): Francis conducts with a guest headliner.
Music of Bond ... James Bond (Feb. 8-9): Francis conducts classic Bond themes like Goldfinger and Live and Let Die.
Out of This World (Feb. 28-29): Featuring compositions from Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey and more. Sarah Hicks conducts.
Broadway: Sondheim and Lloyd Webber (March 27-29): Includes works from Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story and more. Malina conducts.
Livin’ Thing: The Music of the Electric Light Orchestra: Daniel Black conducts Jeff Lynne’s hits, including Evil Woman and Mr. Blue Sky.
Prohibition (April 25-26): Featuring music from the 1920s made famous by Rudy Vallee, Josephine Baker and others. Tyzik conducts.
Superhero Soundtracks (May 15-16): Featuring themes from Superman, Batman and more. Stuart Chafetz conducts.