The Florida Orchestra and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay opened their seasons Friday night with a vigorous joint performance of a titanic masterpiece and another symphony that ought to be better known.
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was the headliner. The rousing "Ode to Joy" of its final movement brought the usual standing ovation. But no wonder. Under the direction of guest conductor Evan Rogister, both ensembles were in top form.
Rogister is a tall and angular presence onstage, with precise and expressive hands, and he conducts in an elegant, buoyant manner. But the musicians and singers, too, are a disciplined bunch, many having played together for years. No summer cobwebs were in evidence. And the surprisingly diverse crowd that filled most of the Straz Center's largest hall, the Morsani, showed its appreciation with whistles, cheering and shouts.
While the Beethoven chorus was an obvious highlight, I especially liked the crisp performance of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms that opened the evening. Listeners who have kept themselves unfamiliar with Stravinsky's musical language may find the tightly woven rhythms and melodies a bit dense. But Rogister's leadership kept every strand precisely in synch.
The text of the symphony is derived from three Hebrew psalms, translated to Latin. They move, in Stravinsky's words, from "the prayer of the sinner for divine pity" through "the recognition of grace received" to a "hymn of praise and glory." Stravinsky said he intended the orchestra and chorus to play equal roles in developing the material. The middle section, for example, contains an intricate double fugue, one each for the two ensembles.
The final section, though, is the most remarkable. It begins with a medium-soft "alleluia" (praise ye the Lord). And while it builds through a driving combination of instrumental and choral virtuosity, its ecstatic conclusion evokes a heightened state, not of bombast, but of serenity — a mystic quietude not often associated with Christian praise music.
The orchestra's treatment of the Beethoven was similarly fine, each part clearly articulated, although perhaps in the first movement not with the same strong narrative spine as I heard in the Stravinsky. The familiar scherzo of the second movement came with every bit of the speed that "molto vivace" and "presto" would indicate; woodwinds and cellos were especially expressive, although overall I may have heard renditions that brought out more of the music's playfulness.
The third movement is a moment of repose. Rogister brought it to a nicely rounded finish, a stately declaration of things with a lightness that seemed to lift the moment slightly off the ground.
And then — drama and effusions of joy! Another chance for the cellos to shine as they sifted through previous ideas before smoothly introducing the famous theme, followed in turn by violas and violins. Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green was superb in his abrupt call to put aside worry. Tenor Nathaniel Peake's scampering above the march section made me happy. Soprano Katie Van Kooten and mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby gave the solo quartet a nice piquancy in front of that magnificent chorus.
By the end, Rogister's spiky hairdo was flattened in perspiration, and a well-earned ecstasy was the result.