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Calm of Debussy and Duruflé surrounds the storm of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2

Harpist Anna Kate Mackle led the orchestra in Debussy’s Danse sacr?e et danse profane.
Published Feb. 19, 2017

TAMPA — The latest offering by the Florida Orchestra begins with dewdrops and ends on a whisper. Between 20th century compositions by Claude Debussy and Maurice Duruflé bursts Ludwig van Beethoven, like an intruder yanking out all the drawers in the house and smashing everything that can be smashed.

This season's Masterworks lineup emphasizes French and Russian romanticism. Performances of Debussy's Danse sacrée et danse profane and Duruflé's Requiem for Chorus, Orchestra and Organ, temper the effects of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2, while showcasing a stellar talent in harpist Anna Kate Mackle and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay.

Neither the venue Friday in the acoustically inferior Ferguson Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts nor the program screamed "must see" to fickle fans (who were probably in the adjacent Morsani Hall enjoying Wicked), but those who filled the house more than got their money's worth. Debussy wrote the piece (literally translated as "dances sacred and profane") in 1904, commissioned as a test piece for a new kind of harp. Instead of the usual 46 strings with foot pedals to loosen or tighten for flats and sharps, this experimental "chromatic harp" developed by Gustave Lyon provided a string for every pitch.

Mackle, the orchestra's principal harp since 1999, led with bright chords and unorthodox melodies, establishing a reflective mood. The other strings behind her created an intimacy, about halfway between a chamber group and a full orchestra. Mackle's elegant melodies contrasted with deeper, moodier underpinnings in those long bow strokes of the double bass. The chromatic harp did not last long. Musicians found that its two rows of intersecting strings muffled tone and were almost impossibly difficult to play. This performance, on a conventional harp, comes through as if intended for this very group.

Beethoven wrote his second symphony in 1802, the same year he penned a letter to his brothers disclosing his hearing loss and consequent despair. Scholars point to this "Heiligenstadt Testament" as evidence of the turning point the composer was undergoing simultaneously, moving from the Viennese classical style of Haydn and Mozart to a romanticism all his own. Symphony No. 2, music director Michael Francis said before the concert, is "probably the most underestimated of his pieces."

In the opening movement, the brass and flute and lower strings take turns venturing and returning. Moments of reflection never last long, replaced with a pitched fury. An expansive second movement, in which violins carry the theme and the oboe and bassoon play point and counterpoint, could be called luxurious. But there always seems to be a pessimism lurking, a forcefulness that reawakens in the rapid scherzo of a third movement and a furious finale.

Durufle's Requiem takes the pace down after intermission, to a contemplative level stemming from the influence by Gregorian chants. It is by far the composer's best-known work. Written on the heels of the German occupation in 1947, the piece moves through a standard requiem format, but with a decided preference for somnolent peace over a trumpet-blasting rendition of "days that will dissolve the world in burning coals" (otherwise known as the Dies irae, dies illa). Francis conducted the orchestra and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, which navigated the changing features of this piece crisply.

Two soloists underscore the quiet grandeur of this music. James K. Bass, a baritone and former artistic director of the Tampa Bay Master Chorale, gives the score the sober and serious dignity it calls for. Mezzo-soprano Anita Krause hauntingly embodies the cavernous spaces for which such works are written.

Instrumental groups alternate the melodies, sometimes the violas, other times different sections of woodwinds. Together with the chorale, the effect is akin to echoes bouncing off the walls of a cathedral. The requiem ends quietly, as prayers often do.

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

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