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What is Tampa Bay? Florida Orchestra’s season opener seeks an answer

Friday’s opening night portrayed Tampa as a melting pot, delivering diverse pieces pulled from around the world. | Concert review

If you had to summarize Florida, and Tampa Bay especially, in just a few words, you could do worse than the three Michael Francis chose Friday night: “Eclectic and unique.”

Sure, that’s one way to put lipstick on a grouper. The Gulf Coast is a tough place to sum up, especially in the lyricless realm of classical music, where the word Margaritaville rarely comes into play.

But that was the mission of the Masterworks program opening the Florida Orchestra’s 2019-20 season, performed Friday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

Francis, the orchestra’s music director, curated a diverse global program aimed at portraying Tampa Bay as a cultural melting pot. But with no Florida composers on the program — nor even a single Gasparilla pirate shanty — how Tampa could this program really be?

It opened with George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, which was promising, a silly, cinematic slice of Havana in the ’30s. There is no evening that can’t be enlivened through that little Latin loony tune. Just like Gershwin preferred, Francis had four percussionists (maracas, bongos, claves and a guiro) come right down front to infuse the rhythm with minty little clicks and clatters. And right off the bat, the crowd got its dose of vintage Ybor City.

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Cuban pianist Aldo Lopez-Gavilan came out next to lead Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, earning a standing ovation after just the first movement (“Two more!” a grinning Francis yelled above the crowd). He performed with superhuman dexterity, his higher keys twinkling like glass wind chimes, the fluff of his Sideshow Bob hairdo bouncing and flouncing as the force of his fingers pushed him up off the bench.

Cuban pianist Aldo Lopez-Gavilan welcomes an ovation after performing Friday with the Florida Orchestra at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

Lopez-Gavilan’s Cuban heritage aside, the Grieg didn’t have much of a tonal link to Tampa. Nor, at first blush, did Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, the first of many Beethoven selections this season and next.

Leonore comes from Beethoven’s only opera, the not-widely-loved Fidelio. In spotlighting that aspect of the great composer’s life, Francis cast a light on an area often overlooked by the rest of the world — a sensation to which more than a few Tampans might relate. With its playful string volleys and Rob Smith’s faraway trumpet solo emanating from the balcony lobby, Leonore built to a furious finish, with Francis up on his toes, tuxedo tail flailing out behind him.

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The night closed with numbers new and old. The new: American composer Mason Bates’ Mothership, an innovatively orchestrated piece that made creative use of percussion, harp and improvised trombone, trumpet, xylophone and E-flat clarinet solos. It sounded like the score to a sci-fi thriller. The old: Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, a slow-building cycle through variations on a theme: Sultry, whimsical, noble, exotic. Principal percussionist John Shaw deserves an Ironman medal for the dogged discipline of his 15-minute snare-drum crescendo, rising from barely perceptible taps to a crash-boom-bang finale.

So you had a Frenchman from the northern Basque (Ravel) leaning into the sound of neighboring Spain; a Brooklynite (Gershwin) borrowing from the Caribbean; a hearing-impaired German (Beethoven) dabbling in the one discipline where he wasn’t considered a master. Did it all add up to Tampa in 2019?

Look, it’s all kindling for the fire that melts the stuff in the pot. Distinctions of backgrounds and borders may not matter. Just look at Lopez-Gavilan, who, upon crushing Grieg’s Norwegian folk masterpiece, brought in yet another cross-cultural perspective, encoring with an off-book number of his own.

“I know there is a lot of history between Tampa and Havana," Lopez-Gavilan said, introducing Espiral, a marvelously upbeat song “inspired by this relationship.”

Did it scream Tampa Bay like a Cuban with salami? Not especially. But it was eclectic and unique. And if that’s not this town in a nutshell, what is?

IF YOU GO

The season-opening program continues at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg; and 2 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $18 and up. (727) 892-3337. floridaorchestra.org.

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