Florida Orchestra celebrates the seasons with sweet strings

There was no need for a conductor Friday as violinist Lara St. John led the Florida Orchestra at the Straz Center in Tampa.
There was no need for a conductor Friday as violinist Lara St. John led the Florida Orchestra at the Straz Center in Tampa.
Published Oct. 25, 2015

TAMPA — Just as the summer might be relinquishing its grip (it doesn't like to let go), the Florida Orchestra offers a concert celebrating the change we are seeing and feeling in the air.

Vivaldi's The Four Seasons for Violin, Strings and Continuo opened Friday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, led by violin soloist Lara St. John. It is a sensual feast, full of recognizable strains often heard during the holidays. The orchestra coupled the selections from Opus 8 of Antonio Vivaldi's concerto with selections by Johann Sebastian Bach and Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla.

Because this is for strings (plus one harpsichord), this performance needed just 26 musicians playing with St. John at the Straz's Ferguson Hall. The orchestra chose to present it as it might have been played in Bach's and Vivaldi's day, without a conductor.

"It would have been the norm rather than the exception for these works to be led by the soloist," said Edward Parsons, the orchestra's artistic operations director. "It makes for a wonderfully collaborative experience for the orchestra and soloist."

Indeed, St. John effectively conducted the concert, signaling entrances and conveying mood and tempo with bow and body language. The musicians followed suit, as if they had been playing these pieces (particularly the Bach) for decades.

A prolific composer with more than 500 concertos to his name, Vivaldi published the dozen concertos containing Opus 8 in 1725. He attached sonnets to each of the first four, which depict the seasons.

St. John is an enterprising musician, and not just because she has owned a record label since 1999. She led Vivaldi's timeless musical descriptions evoked in the sonnets, from the "gentle rustling of leaves and branches" in spring to summer thunderstorms.

Some of the most breathtaking sequences come in the autumn, with sliding scales depicting boozy revelers; followed by a teeth-chattering winter.

"It is kind of possible to hear the cold," St. John said of this movement in a pre-concert lecture.

The Bach selection, Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, is St. John's personal favorite, surpassing the violin concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergey Prokofiev and Johannes Brahms. The first movement alternates slow and fast tempos, a ritornello (or "returning") format between an opening "hammerblow" chord and the violin soloist.

The second movement is a somber segment, especially for a composer sometimes, perhaps unfairly, considered "cerebral." The orchestra's strings fleshed out the body of emotion in this music, enough to make the transition to the joyous third movement a meaningful one.

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The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires for Violin and Strings, the evening's final selection, is a fun counterpoint to Vivaldi. Piazzolla (1921-1992), an accomplished bandoneon (a smaller, accordian-like instrument) player, is credited with revitalizing tango music, a form that has gone through multiple peaks.

He composed Four Seasons for piano in 1968 and later added strings. The piece brings out sounds St. John's 236-year-old Gaudagnini violin probably was not built to make, opening with an abrasive scratching sound. A cello solo then gives way to the sliding and unmistakable rhythms of the tango. There is humor in it, and sonority.

Knowing the tango connection beforehand, it is impossible not to think of dancers while listening to this music, down to the chafing of their shoes as they pivot on a ballroom floor.

With this intimate concert, the Florida Orchestra invites you to take a break and enjoy the scenery. The crowd at Ferguson Hall responded with cheers, so much so that St. John returned for an encore, a lively dance movement from Bach's Partita No. 3 for solo violin.

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