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Orchestra goes for a festive, intimate evening featuring cellist Lynn Harrell

Lynn Harrell solos in Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1 and conducts the Florida Orchestra, March 23-25, 2018. Photo by Hannoah Entertainment.
Published Mar. 24, 2018

TAMPA — This weekend's round of concerts by the Florida Orchestra departs from the usual format. The concert, which opened Friday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, does not feature a full orchestra. There is no groundswell of horns or percussion, nor a shattering climax to end the night. Three of the pieces performed are for small ensembles; the fourth, Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 5, adds woodwinds to what is mostly strings on stage. It's a charming concept, particularly with the addition of world renowned cellist Lynn Harrell conducting and soloing.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (German for "a little night music") is perhaps the best known piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It's a lively serenade that begins with a joyous burst of strings. It slows down in the second movement before picking up in the third and fourth. Its placement at the top of the program sets a festive mood, like laurel wreaths in a large hall.

Harrell then faced the audience for Joseph Haydn's Concerto No. 1 for Cello. The concerto's three-part sonata structure and difficulty allows the soloist to show off his or her skill set and interpretive ability. Harrell has spent a long career earning a reputation as one of the best. And there is the rub.

After navigating the growling, bow-slapping passages of the first movement with instantaneous authority, he took on its blindingly fast arpeggios. There and elsewhere, his accuracy seemed a little off. While no one before the end of the 19th century expected cellists to play with the same degree of precision as violinists, the bar has been raised by subsequent musicians, including Harrell.

On Friday he appeared to make a number of small slips. Most of these came in long shifts higher on the neck, landing near the note and sliding up. There's nothing wrong with that in principle; it's part of playing the instrument. But the number of these unwritten mini-glissandos that showed up, coupled with one or two outright misses, was concerning. The concerto is not as expansive as, say, Prokofiev's Cello Sonata, hence small mistakes cannot be hidden, even by the clowning he did in the movement — pausing to stroke his beard after a reflective passage, or wiggle his fingers in the air, or pretend to be startled by the violins over his right shoulder.

In his defense, Harrell is a musical populist who sees himself as a kind of ambassador, who laments about people being turned off because they applauded between movements and got dirty looks. And Haydn's music is witty. But for someone trying to grasp the music, the mugging for the camera can be a bit distracting.

Harrell got serious from the second movement on out, most poignantly in Kol Nidre ("All Vows"). Composer Max Bruch was a Protestant inspired by Jewish folk music. The piece, which has been used in Yom Kippur and other solemn services, reached soul stirring moments, including the cello solos by Harrell, who conducted with his bow.

The concert concluded with Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 5, another work both festive and intimate. Its many themes developed with a lush extravagance through the strings and woodwinds. At times, the reduced number of musicians on the floor sounded like a full orchestra, so that the realization they weren't always came as a surprise.

Harrell conducted competently, not so much as the symphony's prime mover as its calm center. As a soloist, showed the skill set and interpretive ability that has made him legendary, even if the overall performance was not his best.

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

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