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Florida Orchestra strikes powerful chord with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, violinist James Ehnes

James Ehnes, in a Florida Orchestra concert series May 4-6, 2018, plays a violin concerto written for him by eight-time Oscar-nominated film composer James Newton Howard. Courtesy of the Florida Orchestra.
Published May 5, 2018

TAMPA — The Florida Orchestra's latest masterworks concert joins two figures who by all rights should be household names, written by one for the other.

James Newton Howard has composed music for more than 120 films, including Pretty Woman and The Hunger Games, as well as Academy Award-nominated scores for Defiance, The Fugitive, The Prince of Tides, and My Best Friend's Wedding.

James Ehnes, of Bradenton, is a Grammy-winning violinist selected by the Pacific Symphony to premiere a concerto it commissioned of Howard. Violin Concerto No. 2 debuted in 2014, a lushly orchestrated piece with cinematic sweep.

At the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night, Ehnes showed the exactitude, zeal and restraint that has made him a world-class performer. While increasingly building on the soloist, this concerto emphasizes the orchestra as a resolving influence, a more than equal partner with its own arguments to make. Ehnes navigates liltingly delicate, thorny passages joined by the orchestra, each recapitulating and expanding on a three-note melody sung by the toddler son of a Pacific Symphony member who died at 18 months. It's a haunting and profound work, and the Tampa Bay area is fortunate to have Ehnes on hand to play it.

Before Ehnes came the 50th anniversary season's final installment, which simultaneously celebrates Florida and taps into the talents of university music professors. Fanfare for Three Cities, by Stetson University's Manuel de Murga, playfully depicts St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater as another three-note motif. It's upbeat and understated for a fanfare, its woodwinds and horns reminiscent of a city's awakening hours, the reply of strings like bridge traffic.

Rodion Shchedrin's mischievous eight-minute Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, better known as Naughty Limericks, bristles with edge and humor. A musical heir of Shostakovich, the Russian composer infused peasant dances with jazz, complete with snapping percussion and snare drums played with brush sticks.

But the crown jewel of this concert was its title piece, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. He wrote it in 1877, the year two women entered his life. The eccentric, austere Nadezha von Meck, to whom he dedicated the work, supplied him with an allowance that allowed him to leave his position at the Moscow Conservatory. And Antonia Miliukov, a student, wrote him a love letter, after which he proposed, thinking the arrangement would counter rumors of his homosexuality.

The marriage lasted 18 days, contributing to Tchaikovsky deliberately naming fate as its theme. While he had already drafted the first three movements before Antonia's letter, he continued to revise them and had yet to compose the furious finale. It begins with a sense of moment, of blasting trumpets. Those bright colors fade in a series of digressions and reemerge just as quickly.

The second movement opens with the oboe and segues into a brooding waltz, a development some have interpreted as taking refuge in the melodies of childhood, reprised at one point by a lonely bassoon. The orchestra effectively reflects the sharp changes in mood as brass and percussion turn melancholy ruminations into frantic nightmares, a waltz gone horribly wrong.

"The way that he takes this dance rhythm, this rather simple waltz, and then builds it up into such a primal cathartic scream of pain is just astonishing," said Michael Francis, the music director and conductor for the orchestra, during a pre-concert lecture.

The symphony evolves in the third movement with pizzicato or plucked strings. The orchestration seduces and soothes, dreamlike and vaguely martial. A unified orchestra plays the finale of the 40-minute symphony in waves of sound, resounding with trombones, tuba and percussion. The strings lean in with racing bow strokes, as if wrestling some enormous python. Apparent conclusions tease and retreat, returning at higher and higher levels before a smashing coda.

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

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