ST. PETERSBURG — The composer sat in semi-darkness, his hand drifting like a slow pendulum at his side. On the Mahaffey Theater stage, the violins led a creaking and mysterious journey through a cypress swamp, the inspiration for the first movement.
The conductor stopped.
"Can we try something?" Florida Orchestra music director Michael Francis asked the man in the chair. "You might not like this. If not, we'll change it back."
Composer Michael Ippolito and Francis worked this way through a rehearsal, making little tweaks. It was weeks before the actual performance. Rotations in most orchestras bring in visiting artists only the Tuesday before. So this was a luxury.
That fact reflects the importance the orchestra attaches to the concert, Dvorak's New World Symphony, because of the world premiere of Triptych, the piece Ippolito wrote for this occasion. The Florida Orchestra will debut it in a series of concerts this weekend.
It was Francis who persuaded Ippolito, 33, to accept the commission he and his wife, Cindy, helped pay for. The mission was to celebrate Florida. Francis regards the commission as the centerpiece of the orchestra's 50th anniversary season.
"He's a fantastic composer," Francis said. "I think Tampa should feel proud of him. He has a big international career going already and he's going to be one of the major players, there's no doubt. And this piece will launch him even further."
When Francis asked if he would mind adjusting a certain crescendo of the brass instruments, Ippolito agreed.
Francis picked up where they had left off, the brass swelling up in a slightly different way. Ippolito held both thumbs up.
"What he's good at is, he's sparing," Francis said. "He doesn't just make everything loud and strong."
Ippolito's journey into music didn't start out glamorously. The son of a telecommunications specialist and a bookkeeper, he played cello at McLane Middle School and the Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra, including side-by-side concerts with Florida Orchestra musicians. At Brandon High, he took master classes with Lowell Adams, still the orchestra's assistant principal cellist.
"I was a terrible cellist and he was very kind to me," Ippolito said. "My career there was sort of moving farther and farther and farther back in the cello section."
He never imagined he would make it in top-flight orchestras, let alone write for them. When he was 12 at McLane, he tinkered with variations on the cello so much that his teacher said, "Why don't you write those things down?"
Ippolito chuckled at the memory.
"That was some creative redirection," he said. "Instead of saying, 'Hey, shut up, you bothering everybody else in the class.'?"
By 15, he was composing concertos, symphonies and chamber pieces. He went on to study at the Juilliard School and the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He has since received numerous commissions, his work played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He has won prestigious fellowships and awards, including from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Juilliard.
The mission from the Florida Orchestra was open-ended: write about Florida. Growing up, he had looked at his home state with the eyes of a restless teenager, as a place to get away from.
"I never really imagined that I would be writing a piece celebrating Florida," he said. "It just wouldn't have occurred to me."
Francis challenged him to rethink his assumptions, to look at it afresh. He pored over some of his favorite literature and immediately found ideas. Not Disney's Florida or that kid at baggage claim who's kite surfing.
"We start to believe our own sales pitch and forget that there is kind of a shocking natural power," Ippolito said. "Something like the swamp or the storms. These are not the paradise-friendly. These are sort of elemental forces. They're bigger than us."
Triptych divides into three movements, or "panels," like separate visual images in a gallery. Cypress Cathedral, inspired by a lecture by Henry David Thoreau and the photographs of Clyde Butcher, narrates swamps. Moody woodwind melodies fall like shafts of light penetrating a canopy of tall trees.
On the Curl'd Clouds comes out of a line by Ariel in The Tempest, about conjuring up a storm. It starts with a razor-sharp ringing of flute, piccolo, harp and crotales, like a wisp of wind that will soon intensify. Barque of Phosphor, the last movement, starts with an eerie, high melody representing the moon. It's a meditation on postcard Florida, the moon turned into sailing ship.
The result surprised Francis.
"I was fascinated because I thought it would be sort of vivacious, about the people. I didn't know what he would do," Francis said. "But he sees Florida as quite still."
Francis, who moved here from England three years ago, doesn't see Florida as still at all.
"As a Brit, I find it just the opposite," he said. "I find the weather here rather threatening. I find the landscape dangerous, that things can eat you." Just the day before, Francis said, he had taken a walk and seen three alligators.
The two musicians compared notes after rehearsal. Ippolito thought the addition with the woodwinds in the first movement should stay. They chatted about when to use a large wooden box with that oversized wooden hammer — named the "Mahler box," after its use at a climactic moment in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6 .
The piece will be different each time because orchestras vary in size and interpretation. Sifting out what works with a live orchestra is critical for a composer, Ippolito said.
Working in the middle of it all re-creates a thrill he first captured as a kid.
"Score study and attending rehearsals and all of that is really important to developing that ear," said Ippolito, who also teaches music at Texas State University. But being in the body of an orchestra, you can't replicate that.
"Vicariously, now I get to do it," he said. "Because otherwise, I would be missing out."
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