TAMPA — The Florida Orchestra season got off to a strong start Friday with Ludwig van Beethoven's most famous work, the broodingly triumphant Symphony No. 5. Music director Michael Francis also conducted Sergei Rachmaninoff's breakout Piano Concerto No. 2, played by Valentina Lisitsa to a full Morsani Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
The concert opened with Ottorino Respighi's ethereal Pines of Rome, a nostalgic choice to kick off the 51st season. The 1924 tone poem was also on the program of the orchestra's first concert in November 1968, when it was called the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony. Dismissed by some as ear candy, the piece also stirred controversy by introducing an actual nightingale recording. Thanks to cutting-edge technology at the time, the same bird has been trilling and whistling its way into the orchestral repertoire ever since.
A bright beginning in flute, brass and percussion also tests the borders of traditional orchestration — until that tingling cacophony slams on the brakes, giving way to a groaning of lower strings, like roots bearing the weight of a swaying tree. The camera pans upward, to an English horn solo (Jeffrey Stephenson) on a bed of violins. Sound slings around among instrument groups, as if propelled by centrifugal force. Other principals factoring in include clarinetist Natalie Hoe, who breaks a moody stillness, and Robert Smith with an offstage trumpet solo.
The nightingale makes a lengthy statement to start the third section, deservedly a cappella. ("No combination of wind instruments could quite counterfeit the real bird's song," Respighi explained.) Then the real action begins in a two-note rhythmic pulse of piano and bass, with which the composer depicted the ghosts of Roman soldiers returning to the forest. Those footsteps grow louder, as does a mounting army of brass. Francis turned profile, bringing in three pairs of flugelhorn and euphonium in the balconies and offstage, a surrounding army.
Orchestra and soloist paired nicely in the Rachmaninoff, written after a three-year depression during which he did not compose. Lisitsa, a native of Ukraine who specializes in Rachmaninoff, played the composer's Concerto No. 3 in Francis' debut with the orchestra three years ago. She again impressed with an extraordinary delicacy, moving from the opening dark chords through contradictory melodies that should not fit together but do. She made one of the most difficult pieces ever written her own, with a sense of timing that divides a second into hundredths and keystrokes into micro-fine degrees of forcefulness. The orchestra navigated the concerto's moods and contrasts all the way to its breathtaking synthesis of a conclusion.
Following that blockbuster with Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 shows how little Francis' orchestra cares about musical snobbery, the kind that regards anything really popular with suspicion. The orchestra even took out a billboard on U.S. 19 of the conductor and the symphony's four-note opening motif: Da-da-da-daaaah!
The fact remains that history remembers No. 5 for a reason. Written midway through his 20-year slide into near-total deafness, it might represent the composer's defiant will to survive ("I will grapple with fate; it shall not overcome me," he wrote). In any case, its humor and complexity and coherence cannot be forgotten. The orchestra changed its seating to a European configuration, dividing the string sections differently and moving the bass to stage right, to reflect Beethoven's time.
Those complexities include a compressed opening theme that then expands, changes form, turns itself inside out in various ways through four movements; follows declarative answers with questions, certainty with doubt, coronating kings in one section and overthrowing them in the next. The orchestra seemed to relish playing something so in its wheelhouse, as if every musician knew every note by heart. The symphony, which transformed from a minor key to a major, ends with not with bombast but the finality of a case made, a point proven.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.