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Review: 'Delius: Appalachia, Sea Drift' breathes life into Old Florida

Published Sep. 25, 2012

The Florida angle is what makes the Florida Orchestra's all-Delius CD so exquisite. Englishman Frederick Delius is the most important classical composer whose music has a meaningful connection to the state (with apologies to a few others, such as Ernst Dohnanyi, who taught at FSU, and Miami native Ellen Taaffe Zwilich).

Delius (1862-1934) found his musical voice when his father, a wool merchant, sent him to work on an orange plantation called Solano Grove by the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville. The young aspiring composer would sit on his porch at night and listen to the songs of the African-American workers floating across the wide river.

You can hear the influence of Delius' formative Florida experience in Appalachia (from an American Indian word for the North American continent), the first of two big works on the disc performed by the orchestra, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and baritone Leon Williams, with Stefan Sanderling conducting. The live recording was made during two concerts at Mahaffey Theater in January.

When the chorus emerges from Delius' layered orchestral texture at various points in the 35-minute work, the impression of distant voices in the mist is haunting. There is a good case to be made for Appalachia, a set of 14 variations on an "old slave song," to be seen as a signpost on the road to Jerome Kern's score for Show Boat and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, not to mention Dvorak's New World Symphony (cited by Joseph Horowitz in the liner notes).

In the wrong hands, Appalachia could have a tendency to sprawl and lose shape, but Sanderling paces the performance well. There is an elegaic, romantic atmosphere to the music, which would sound right at home in a Hollywood movie (as indeed it did in the score for The Yearling). Numerous deft little solos dot the work, with English horn, harp, French horn, violin and trumpet among the most prominent, and the Naxos recording brings out the details nicely.

Williams and the Master Chorale come to the fore in Sea Drift, which many regard as Delius' crowning achievement. A setting of a section of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, it is a challenging sing, and with the exception of an occasional labored phrase, the baritone brings lyrical smoothness and rich sonority to the tricky free verse, and his high notes (there are many) are clearly heard. A frequent soloist with the orchestra and Master Chorale, he has an innate theatricality and makes the tale of a seabird whose mate has vanished feel positively devastating as he mourns the loss "uselessly, uselessly all the night."

The only other pairing on disc of Appalachia and Sea Drift that I know of was put out in 1981 by Decca, with baritone John Shirley-Quirk, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus, Richard Hickox conducting. It's a showier treatment, while this production has a muted, subtle quality that better suits the hazy tone colors and mysterious mood of the Delius sound.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

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