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Florida Orchestra mixes it up, collaborates with community in 2018-19 season

Former Florida Orchestra resident conductor Thomas Wilkins returns to conduct Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and William Grant Still's Afro-American Jan. 4-6, 2019. (Florida Orchestra)
Published Feb. 7, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG

Themes are useful sometimes. Right now, the Florida Orchestra is still enjoying the heart of its 50th anniversary season, which has been big and loud and celebratory.

At other times, maybe it's best to just put a fine program together and let the public decide what to call it. Music director Michael Francis is taking the latter course in 2018-19, bringing world-class soloists in for Mahler, Beethoven and Brahms while highlighting new work and commissioning another piece.

The orchestra will continue its outreach into the Tampa Bay area in collaborations with the Florida Holocaust Museum, the University of South Florida and arts and theatrical organizations. The season will emphasize variety and partnerships, said orchestra spokeswoman Kelly Smith.

"This is more about moving forward into our new era together, and what do we want to be as an orchestra going forward?"

The season opens with Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 (Sept. 28-30), the first time the orchestra has performed the symphony in a masterworks concert since 2010. An overarching metaphor of emerging from darkness into light fits Francis' vision for the season, Smith said. Pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who soloed memorably with Rachmaninoff at Francis' first concert as music director, returns to play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2.

Francis has led the orchestra in two "Inside the Music" public tutorials each year. He'll add a third in 2018-19, beginning with Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.

Another sort of statement comes with the performance of A Child in Our Time (Nov. 9-11), British composer Michael Tippett's oratorio to Kristallnacht on the 80th anniversary of that anti-Jewish pogrom.

"Michael Tippett is a pacifist," Francis said. "And he really had this desire to find a new way to go from confrontation. To get away from confrontation, away from war."

The concert is done in partnership with the Florida Holocaust Museum and includes selections from George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, a thematic connection of oppression. George Gershwin surfaces again in Rhapsody in Blue (Jan. 4-6), conducted by Thomas Wilkins, a Florida Orchestra resident conductor from 1994 to 2002. That concert includes William Grant Still's Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, also known as Afro-American, the first symphony by an African-American composer performed for a major orchestra in the United States.

Another of Still's pieces comes up on the other side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Poem for Orchestra (Jan. 18-19). Joshua Weilerstein, a former assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, will conduct the concert, which includes contemporary composer Mason Bates' Cello Concerto and the title piece, Schubert's Symphony No. 9.

The orchestra goes Shakespearean with Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Feb. 15-17, 2019), in collaboration with singers and actors from the University of South Florida. Meanwhile, Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 (March 29-31, 2019) brings in British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who at 25 has already become one of the world's most sought after artists. The concert hall will darken in the same program for Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, which was built around a poem by modernist Richard Dehmel that will be flashed across a screen.

"As people listen, it will be deeply atmospheric," Francis said. "You'll see the poetry and some pictures as you hear the music, and the audience will have a deeply powerful experience."

There's a nod to the contributions of women to classical music in Grammy-nominated Anna Clyne's The Seamstress (April 12-14, 2019). The piece features Sarah Shellman, the orchestra's second principal violin. The program recognizes Clara Schumann as the muse behind her husband Robert Schumann's work, including the featured Manfred Overture, and will be conducted by the New Zealand-born Gemma New.

While there's no theme per se, the season emphasizes music as an evolving, changing art form. Following the orchestra's commission of Michael Ippolito's Triptych, which premieres Feb. 23-25, the orchestra has commissioned a new work (as yet untitled) by USF professor Baljinder Sekhon (Feb. 22-24, 2019). Francis and his wife Cindy are personally financing the orchestra's commissions of both works.

"I think it's important to remind ourselves that we are an organization that is absolutely fresh and treats music as a living art," Francis said.

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

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