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Orchestra explores spirit of Florida and the U.S. with 'Triptych' and 'New World' Symphony

Florida Orchestra conductor Michael Francis discusses scoring with composer Michael Ippolito, seated, of Tampa as they rehearse Ippolito's Triptych at the the Mahaffey Theatre, St. Petersburg, Florida, Feb. 1, 2018. The Florida Orchestra concerts on Feb. 23-25, 2018 will include the world premiere of Triptych which is themed around Florida. The first movement is inspired by cypress trees in swamps, another movement by storms, the final movement by the beach. CHERIE DIEZ | Times
Published Feb. 24, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — One of the more important programs in the Florida Orchestra's season combined Antonin Dvorak's best known symphony with the debut of a major commission. Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, better known as the "New World," reaches to the roots of this country as seen by an outsider.

Triptych, Michael Ippolito's new work, explores Florida through the eyes of the Tampa native who consulted Thoreau, poet Wallace Stevens and Shakespeare. Both of those works and the Sergei Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini combined for an evening both introspective and joyful.

The concert's title work, Dvorak's best known symphony, was born out of the composer's belief that a nation's soul and character are best expressed in its folk music. The 1893 composition, written while he served as artistic director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, certainly enhanced its flavor by diving into what he knew of African-American and Native American idioms. But the emotion that gives the symphony its urgency also derives from Dvorak's awe of rural America and homesickness for Czechoslovakia. Those competing themes, played with reverential exactitude by the orchestra, repeat in various forms and guises over four movements.

After a reflective opening, the brass introduces a quickened tempo. A sense of sweeping vistas in strings pares down for the oboe and flute. A nostalgic English horn solo, later fitted to words as the folk song Goin' Home, comes near the opening of the second movement. This slower, or Largo, movement also introduces a funereal inspiration from Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, which continues through the scherzo dance melodies in the third.

The finale builds on the brutal justice Hiawatha dishes out to the troublemaker Pau-Puk-Keewis, even the recognizable note sequence reminiscent of the rising and falling slopes of a mountain. The entire symphony is a highlight reel of themes that lived on because they somehow struck a chord.

The concert opens with Triptych, the orchestra's major commission in its 50th season. Ippolito, who addressed the audience at a pre-concert talk and just before the performance, has likened its three movements to panels at an art gallery. All show deliberation and restraint. The first, Cypress Cathedral, evokes the photographs of Clyde Butcher, from which is was partly inspired.

The violins in particular create a combination of mystery and even fear, a canoe trip with unexpected sights lurking around the bend. Percussionists in a wide variety of instruments weigh in more in the second movement, which brilliantly captures a storm's build-up, from a pesky piccolo and the warning clash of a triangle to stinging raindrops of flute to cymbals and a bass drum. A violin solo highlights the third panel, which Ippolito has described as a narrative about "the moon reimagined as a luminescent ship" sailing in the sky. But it also summarizes the other two by eulogizing a quiet beauty about Florida that could only come from a native.

Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody offers the evening's virtuoso moment in Cuban pianist Aldo Lopez-Gavilán. He glided through ghostly themes, punctuated with power chords and then flying over the keys with great precision. At times the forcefulness of the score seemed to take a back seat to technical mastery as Lopez-Gavilán played declarative passages with an odd passivity. If that interpretation of the music was puzzling, his control of it was unquestioned.

Nudged by a standing ovation, Lopez-Gavilán obliged with an encore. His original composition, Variations on Frère Jacques, showed off his range and versatility even more than the Rachmaninoff.

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

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