ST. PETERSBURG — The off-beats were a little, well, off.
The Florida Orchestra was gathered at the Mahaffey Theater in September for a rehearsal of its first official concert of the season, and they were going over was a particularly precarious passage of The Planets.
Gustav Holst’s seven-movement piece features some difficult sections, including one in “Jupiter” that asks certain musicians in the orchestra to play beats that are syncopated, or off the usual on-beat, while others are playing traditional on-beats. It makes for a compelling dissonance that can sound wrong even when it’s right.
As the music director of Florida’s largest professional orchestra, Michael Francis was prepared. He’s conducted this piece, a standard for classical musicians, before, so he knew they would have to spend some time going over this part.
A digital clock marked in bright red numbers the beginning of rehearsal, part of a set of rules that ensures the unionized orchestra works punctually. This was the group’s first time gathering to practice for the 2023-24 season, and it’s kind of like the first day of school.
They spent the next 2 1/2 hours playing through each of the seven movements in The Planets. Francis listened to five seconds of music and picked up on the tempo, dynamics and inconsistencies of the sounds. It felt like a magic trick.
They started with “Neptune,” a quiet, ethereal piece featuring lots of flutes and oboes and strings, and a vocal accompaniment performed by the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. When it was time to begin, Francis raised his arms, baton in hand, and flicked his wrist ever so slightly to indicate the start of each passage. From a seat on the side of the stage, it was a barely perceptible movement. But the 92 musicians sitting in curved rows around him were dialed in.
“Keep it on the front of the beat,” he said to the strings in “Mercury.” “Make sure that you don’t luxuriate here. This is snail mail, not email.”
In another passage, Francis told a tuba player his part should feel like riding a horse.
“So if it feels like I’m chasing you, that’s good,” he said.
In “Mercury,” he worked with the strings to get the style and volume just right, having them play the first note of the section over and over until it locks in. Then he had them play the part as written, paying particular attention to the balance of the sound.
“If you hear yourself, you’re too loud,” he said.
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Resident conductor Chelsea Gallo sat in the center of the vacant theater. One body in a sea of empty red chairs, she was acting as the ears of the audience that would be there in a couple of days.
“Mars” was powerful and ear-shatteringly loud, full of booming low brass and percussion. It was clear listening to it why so many musicians were wearing ear plugs on stage. Those sitting in front of large brass instruments are especially careful to protect their hearing. Some even have a custom set, designed to block out certain decibels and allow others through so they can hear themselves play.
This is one of just four rehearsals leading up to the orchestra’s 56th season that runs through the end of May and will feature more than 120 concerts and 300 different works. There are the Masterworks shows, made up of a variety of classical pieces from well-known composers, plus shows that feature film scores, Broadway music, rock songs and mashups like last month’s Tchaikovsky and Drake concert.
It’s a big year for the organization, which features 71 full-time professional musicians and conductors who come from all over the United States and even the world. They welcomed a new president and CEO over the summer, 36-year-old Ignacio Barron Viela. They’ve also added nine new musicians, including the first new principal bass player in nearly 50 years. In many ways, this year marks a true return to form after the pandemic curtailed the performing arts in 2020.
When they’re not performing for Tampa Bay residents at the Straz Center, Mahaffey Theater and Ruth Eckerd Hall, musicians are rehearsing in their houses or apartments, refreshing their ears with pieces they’ve played before and mastering new ones they haven’t.
When they come together for that first rehearsal, it’s the result of hours of independent work.
For some new members like Ryan Sujdak, the orchestra’s principal bass, the learning curve is a little steeper.
“Most everyone who’s been in this orchestra for five years or more has played (The Planets) at least once,” he said. “I guarantee they still went home and looked at it. But I’m learning most of this repertoire for the first time. So I’m practicing the part, physically being able to play it, but also looking at the score and trying to figure out entrances and when I’m supposed to come in.”
A lot of the work is done outside of the rehearsal hall, he said.
“The first rehearsal is seriously, seriously good,” Francis said. “And then we fine-tune it. Rehearsals are for establishing a longer growth of excellence. ... You’re harnessing these incredibly gifted, motivated musicians. They need me and I need them.”
For the dozens of musicians who win highly competitive auditions to play with this orchestra, this is their full-time job.
“It’s at such an exceptionally high level,” Francis said. “Most of these people, they’ve been doing this for 17 years, even if they’re in their early 20s. The gestation period of excellence is way longer than being a doctor or even in sports. In music, you’re getting your first big job in your early 20s.”
Sujdak is 25, and playing for the first time with a professional orchestra. He replaces Dee Moses, the orchestra’s first and only principal bass player who has retired. After studying at the Manhattan School of Music, then Yale, then Colburn, Sujdak flew around the world auditioning for nine orchestras in nine months, from Indiana to Toronto to Sweden.
“In my world, for bass players, the dream is to always play with an orchestra professionally,” he said. “It’s hard to make a living as a pro chamber music, and a soloist, for bass specifically, impossible to make a living. Orchestra is the only option if you want a steady living.”
Matthew Melillo is another new member this year, coming from Northwestern University, where he got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in bassoon performance. He plays contrabassoon, a large woodwind instrument that’s quite singular.
“I’m in one of those seats where I’m the only one doing my job,” he said. “There’s only one contrabassoon in most pieces of music. I really have to make sure that I’m present in the sound of the orchestra, and be really careful where I’m breathing because I don’t have other people to cover me.”
Melillo lives in a house in St. Petersburg where he spends most of his time practicing alone. As a double-reed player, Melillo crafts parts of his instrument himself from scratch. All woodwind instruments (clarinets, saxophones, oboes) use reeds in their mouthpieces, thin strips usually made from wood that produce a signature sound. Unlike a clarinet reed, bassoon reeds are made from just one piece of cane wood that is shaped down a certain way: formed over a mandrel, wrapped with wires and string, shaped and clipped at the tip.
“Most of the reason we make them is it gives you the ability to tailor it to your own preferences,” Melillo said. “A lot of commercial reeds are either not good or super expensive. So it makes sense to do it yourself.”
He’s performed everywhere from Colorado to Switzerland, and similar to other new musicians went to a dozen auditions before landing the Florida Orchestra spot.
“I believe this is an orchestra that plays well above its station,” he said. “I’m super excited about the programming this year because this isn’t one of those orchestras where they fall into the same standards. This is really exciting and novel programming. We have a good mix of contemporary stuff.”
Francis works with the orchestra’s artistic advisory committee and others to plan the music for each season, crafting a lineup that will enlighten and entertain.
“We want music that’s appealing to our community, that reflects the time in which we live,” said Francis. “We look at a great masterpiece and think, ‘Why are they relevant today?’ ... That’s very important, the here and now, so the audience can sympathize, emphasize and develop compassion for their composers, for people who lived different lives than they did.”
With the Masterworks shows especially, it’s important to Francis that there is variety.
“I want to have some that are a salad. I need a ceviche, I need a roast beef, both in one meal and across the whole season,” he said.
Something like The Planets contains “the entire panoply of the human psyche,” Francis said. “You want to tell a story that’s as engaging today as when it was written.”
At the Ruth Eckerd Hall performance of that first Masterworks show, the crowd was indeed engaged, laughing at Francis’ many cheeky asides and leaping to their feet after the show ended. And the hall was packed, with a concessions line so long at intermission it looped back on itself twice.
The show featured the Percussion Collective in the first half, a smaller group of musicians who took to the front of the stage for a mesmerizing rendition of Christopher Theofanidis’ “Drum Circles.” Then came The Planets, starting with the thundering “Mars” and ending gently with “Neptune.” And those off-beats in “Jupiter”? They were right on.
If you go see The Florida Orchestra
The Florida Orchestra’s 56th season runs through May, with shows in Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Find the full schedule of performances at floridaorchestra.org. Tickets for all Masterworks and Pops concerts start at $28. Morning Matinee prices range from $25 to $47. There are deals on tickets for kids, teens, students, teachers, first responders and military. 727-892-3331. The next Masterworks show is Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, featuring Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2: 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Straz Center, 8 p.m. Nov. 18 at the Mahaffey Theater and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 at Ruth Eckerd Hall.