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Sting rocks the house with old and new hits in Florida Orchestra gala

Sting, bottom, and Michael Francis, Music Director of the Florida Orchestra, top, perform with the Florida Orchestra during the Florida Orchestra's 50th Anniversary Gala celebration at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, FL, on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. Sting performed songs from his solo career and from his time with The Police, such as "Englishman in New York" and Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times ]
Published Dec. 10, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — In some ways, the Florida Orchestra's gala with Sting looked like other concerts of a mega-star. Most of the fans who packed the Mahaffey Theater bought their tickets the day they went on sale. They cheered and sang along at the opening strains of the singer-songwriter's instantly recognizable hits.

A couple of times they stood for the duration of a song. The gala, the orchestra's only major fund-raising event of the year, raised a record $1.5 million, money that will be used for securing soloists and expanding community work in such areas as schools and hospitals.

But the concert stood out most for its contrasts with most megastar events. Though a surprisingly high percentage of younger faces blended in between graying or bald heads, this was still an older crowd that tended to express enthusiasm through rapt silence. It started on time, Sting strolling onstage in a slim-cut tux alongside music director Michael Francis, a fellow Brit and longtime fan. He joked about the day's chilly, drizzly weather reminiscent of London.

He then launched into Englishman in New York, accompanied by Natalie Hoe, the orchestra's principal clarinet who had also entered with him. The jazzy song set a tone for the evening as Hoe's silky clarinet captured an elegance not apparent in the original version. At just 23 and in her first professional position, Hoe has started quickly, succeeding Brian Moorhead, who retired last year.

Most of the concert's songs had been arranged by Rob Mathes, who has a long track record of turning out orchestral adaptations for superstars. (Mathes also played keyboards in the concert, one of four musicians Sting brought with him.)

Sting has been cranking out hits since the late 1970s, when he co-founded the Police with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers. He branched out as a solo act to jazz, folk and classical stylings and even penned a Broadway musical. That versatility might have left some wondering how often he would dip into the Police's greatest hits.

If there was any doubt about that, Sting erased it with the second song, Every Little Thing She Does is Magic, which had the black-tie crowd immediately chiming in on the Eee-Ohhh-Ohh refrain and clapping their hands. He slowed down that vibe with a touching anecdote about coming home from an international tour to see his new home, a weatherbeaten estate near Stonehenge that had seen better days. Sting's wife, Trudie Styler, had consulted him on the purchase while he was overseas, but a stroll through barley fields told him she had made the right choice.

Sting recalled what he told his wife — "Darling, I want to live here; but more important, I want to die here" — before launching into Fields of Gold.

He followed that up with another nod to the Police days, a mellower version of Roxanne. Francis took the orchestra through a lush arrangement heavy on the strings, including a solo by principal cello James Connors.

The program diverged into other parts of his life story, which for Sting become intertwined with his music. The native of Newcastle, England, confessed to a long fascination with country music.

"But for me there's a problem with authenticity," he said, although he gained some when Johnny Cash covered I Hung My Head. Sting played harmonica for the song, which contains Western references to a shooting death and gallows and ends on a single lonely note.

Another pair of songs linked his childhood near a shipyard with his recent past, the title song of his musical, The Last Ship, and the jaunty and slightly melancholy What Say You Meg?, about a sailor's marriage proposal. If those songs mellowed the mood, all it took to change that was King of Pain, which brought in the full orchestra and with it the crowd. Then like a scientist who over years of experimentation has worked out the kinks in his formula, he circled back to one of his greatest hits, Every Breath You Take.

Sting bowed and waved to the crowd. He walked offstage, but you knew it wasn't going to end there. He and the orchestra played two encores, the Middle Eastern-themed Desert Rose and the tender antiwar song, Fragile. That was part of the denouement following a peak moment of what had been scripted as his closing number. It got the audience on their feet, years shedding off them like snake scales as they swayed and sang along.

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

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