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Orchestra delivers a stirring Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2

Under the baton of Stuart Malina, critic Andrew Meacham writes, the Florida Orchestra plays the second movement of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 with an almost total unanimity. Courtesy of the Florida Orchestra.
Published Dec. 2, 2017

TAMPA — Sometimes it's nice to just sit back and enjoy a concert.

I mean really, you can work yourself to death trying to figure out every nuance, as a critic or music aficionado. I don't think Sergei Rachmaninoff, who described music as nonverbal poetry, wanted his listeners to have that kind of experience. This weekend's Florida Orchestra concert series is calmly enjoyable, particularly the title piece, Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2.

It begins with a low growl of strings, before the violins pick up the pace. A sweeping, panoramic vision asserts itself with the authority of genius. A few notes of a trumpet hint at things to come. A second, more contemplative theme emerges, this time recapitulated by the woodwinds, answered by rapid strings and the occasional swell of the full orchestra. The feeling is one of constrained power, the horns bursting in at full volume and instantly restrained, again by the woodwinds; an equestrian reining in a thoroughbred.

The second movement starts with a scherzo and builds in successive layers, the rapid strings at times opening up into a lush dimension supported again by a full orchestra. The feeling is one of humor and a contagious confidence. Under the baton of Stuart Malina, the orchestra plays the piece with an almost total unanimity, the kind that only comes when musicians appear to know the score by heart.

The third movement shows why Symphony No. 2 as one of the 20th century's most enduring. Here romantic expression initiated in the first two movements blossoms in lengthy stretches. Oboe and violin solos usher in segues, but a floating overtone has now established itself as the primary message, as if to say, "You weren't reading this wrong, it's supposed to be this exhilarating."

The Ferguson Hall audience sat utterly silent through this movement, nearly stifling even the occasional cough.

The fourth movement begins in a bright and portentous way, with dancelike strings leading the way. Like a rousing speech that summarizes its earlier themes, this one reinforces the vivacity of love. The mechanisms vary between an entrance of horns, another violin solo by concertmaster Jeffrey Multer, with sudden accelerations in volume and intensity. Unlike previous movements, the finale does not decelerate all the way. This time, those slight retreats only momentarily disguise a rushing, rousing exclamation point of a conclusion.

The concert began with Malina's own Common Fanfare for an Uncommon Orchestra, a bright an exuberant interplay of horns and percussion. Like Malina himself, it's more casual than royal, disarmingly playful and fun. Sergei Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 for Violin follows, a complex piece book ending, with the Rachmaninoff, the shifting cusp of the late romantic period with what we call modern. Its lyrical style and counterintuitive rhythms set the stage for the evening's soloist, violinist Alexander Kerr.

Kerr gives a virtuoso performance, nimbly navigating hundreds of racing ripples. He plays darkly expressive and exceedingly difficult melodies with an impassive calm, as if he could just as easily be standing on a subway platform, and if someone threw a dollar into his case he might notice and he might not. Patrons of the concert were not fooled, and gave Kerr and the orchestra a lengthy ovation before intermission.

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

.If you go

Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2

Concerts start at 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg. $15-$45. (727) 892-3337. floridaorchestra.org.

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