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Orchestra sets off fireworks in the brassy 'Sinfonietta'

Cellist Maximilian Hornung plays Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor with the Florida Orchestra through Sunday. [Courtesy of Maximilian Hornung.]
Published Jan. 20, 2018

TAMPA — Many times during Sinfonietta, Leoš Janácek's notoriously difficult but joyous work, it was impossible for a regular patron of the Florida Orchestra to escape this observation: They have never sounded quite like this.

This isn't to say musicians under the baton of Michael Francis performed at their absolute peak — they played quite well, but more was demanded of them later in the evening, for Dvorák's Cello Concerto — or that they held anything back. Far from it. On opening night of the weekend's concert series, one devoted to three Czech composers, the orchestra in this instance was literally not the same orchestra.

Janácek, a proud nationalist after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, composed this Claymore mine of an orchestral work in 1926 with a greatly expanded brass section, originally to commemorate gymnastic games.

With considerable legwork and phone calls, the orchestra summoned 12 trumpets, two bass trumpets, two euphoniums and four trombones for the piece — a total of 26 brass instruments on stage, compared to just 24 violins. It was as if a semi-trailer had pulled up to the loading dock of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and unloaded brass players.

"It's the (orchestra's) 50th anniversary, we wanted you to enjoy it," Francis told the audience at a pre-concert lecture.

The piece is considered a bucket-list item for brass musicians. Several, including principal trumpet Robert Smith and Carolyn Wahl, a 44-year veteran on the French horn, had never played it in concert.

The 24-minute piece covers, almost photographically, several scenes over five movements, and includes a wrenching dissonance by the trombones to open the second movement and clarinet and timpani to complement a "street" scene later on. It ends in a storm — a roaring, raining sound from the open door of that semi that reverberates in the mind through intermission.

The concert opened with the premiere of Splendor Fountain, the latest in a series of original compositions marking the 50th season. Daniel Crozier, a Rollins College professor who attended the show, has composed a bright, folksy, robust five-minute piece that hints at water and romance, with a jaunty melody carried by the brass. The Florida Fanfare Project is not a contest; that said, this one stood out.

Bedrich Smetana's Vltava movement, out of his patriotic 1882 piece, Ma Vlast ("my country"), is a luxurious tone poem consciously themed on the flow of a river. We see its beginnings in swirls of the flute, joined by a clarinet. Its flow gains strength through the cello; the river passes almost indifferently by hunters in pursuit, depicted by horns. The orchestra is dialed in for all of this, tuned in with Francis' muscular conducting style. The water broadens — bigger, faster — carrying the melody triumphantly into Prague.

As lovely as those pieces were, none compared with Antonín Dvorák's Cello Concerto in B minor. The pedigree of soloist Maximilian Hornung already rates him as one of the world's best. Hearing him discuss the piece in the pre-concert talk (recommended for this), then knocking it down over three very different emotional movements, quickly proves that his reputation is well-deserved. Dvorák was himself a frustrated cellist who once lamented the difficulty of writing for the instrument between extremes he considered nasal or growling. He clearly got over that hang-up, as this virtuoso work traces the borders between joy and grief.

The composer experienced both, often simultaneously, in his love life. He had married a pupil, Anna Cermáková, but only after her sister, Josefina, rejected his advances. Although he enjoyed a friendship with Josefina he remained romantically obsessed with her, composing this concerto in 1895, the year she died. The concerto's second movement captures the pain of mourning, the extent of which must remain hidden. There is nothing florid about Hornung's style; he simply and flawlessly moves up and down the long neck of his instrument, guiding that grief to an eventual resolution and homecoming.

The cello concerto is not Dvorák's best known work. That would be Symphony No. 9, better known as the New World Symphony, on tap for Feb. 23-25.

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

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