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Florida Orchestra closes 50th masterworks season with Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony

Pianist Javier Perianes solos in Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Florida Orchestra tonight and Sunday. Courtesy of the Florida Orchestra.
Published May 19, 2018

TAMPA — The Florida Orchestra wraps up its final masterworks concert of the season with a masterfully complex Johannes Brahms piano concerto and Ludwig van Beethoven's warmly accessible Symphony No. 6, commonly known as the "Pastoral."

Friday's sold-out concert at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts also filled three-quarters of the ground-level seats for music director and conductor Michael Francis' pre-concert talk. Thus the 50th season heads toward a graceful conclusion, particularly with a deeply pleasing rendition of the Beethoven.

The evening opened with a brand-new piece, David Browne's Shattered Clock Fanfare, the winner of the orchestra's student composition contest. It begins brightly, with minor odd harmonies leading to martial snare drums and crisp violins, each segment paradoxically blending into and contrasting with the next. The contest expanded its eligibility this year to university programs statewide. Browne, a 22-year-old Florida Atlantic University student who wants to write music for video games, media and professional ensembles, said his work focuses on "adventures of the mind." It also suggests order and another force that gently mocks that same order and teases it apart.

Pianist Javier Perianes handled the Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 with elan, faithfully rendering the composer's brooding and multiple messages. The score contains majestic swells and restraint, running trills and an acute sense of listening in a dialogue with the orchestra. It is romantic but not florid. Its moods suggest turbulence in rumbling bass chords and an equally ethereal period in the third movement, like a nap on a balmy afternoon.

Perianes isn't interested in clubbing anyone over the head with his interpretation; for him, it's about the concerto. He seemed at his best and most engaged in the middle tones, such as the elaborate and passionate arguments between piano and orchestra in the fourth movement.

At the same time this was journeyman's work, albeit by one deserving of his place on the international stage. Daylight exists between this performance and the all-time greats. The main difference lies in the clean, distinct ways Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein strike the same notes on those difficult runs up or down the scale. While Perianes played a difficult concerto and did nothing wrong, his runs seemed less distinct, even muddy at times.

In the meantime, a solo interlude in the third movement by principal cellist James Connors remained one of the evening's highlights.

For a Romantic composer, Beethoven was less prone than most to encourage "extramusical" interpretations of his work. (Indeed, Richard Wagner coined the term "absolute music," the opposite of extramusical or program music "about" something else, to describe Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.) He departed most notably from that trend in Symphony No. 6, which the composer devoted to narrating a single day in the countryside.

A lush mood announces itself in the opening notes, which evokes the symphony's subtitle, "The Awakening of Cheerful Feelings at the Arrival in the Country." A brisk pace led by the strings suggests grabbing a picnic basket and leaving the city, creating distance on a beautiful day. Subsequent scenes include the literal musical transcription of a brook and the whistling of birds. The orchestra rendered pulsating quality to this first encounter with nature, an ebb and flow established by rhythmic dissonance. As Francis explained in an "Inside the Music" presentation on Thursday, the composer in the first movement starts the brook scene with bass, violin and cello playing three-beat sequences, or triplets. Other violins and flutes join in, but at a double, "one-and-two-and..." tempo.

"When you add that together, you get this very strange tension of threes against twos pulling against each other," Francis said.

That tension, and the slow crescendo that follows as more instrument join in, replicates a breathing brook teeming with life. Subsequent movements capture a peasant fair with drinking songs, a bass-and-tympani-driven thunderstorm and its tranquil resolution. Principals Clay Ellerbroek (flute), Natalie Hoe (clarinet) and John Upton (oboe) all contribute in important ways, yet one more hopeful reminder of what lies in store for the orchestra next season.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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