Florida Orchestra connects sea-themed works, old and new

Published Nov. 12, 2016

TAMPA — The Florida Orchestra has paid tribute to the big guns of music, with Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and Mozart's Jupiter Symphony so far this year, with Mahler and Tchaikovsky yet to come.

Between such no-brainers in the Masterworks series, the orchestra sometimes works in a "concept concert," performances built around a theme. This weekend's Songs of the Sea: Britten, Elgar and Debussy is a prime example. Friday's opening at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts rolled out four works inspired by oceans, both literal and personal. Musicians and music director Michael Francis, who conceived and conducted the concert, seemed especially on point in delivering a message that was uniquely theirs, and uniquely ours.

It began with Four Sea Interludes, by Benjamin Britten, from his opera, Peter Grimes. The story follows a fisherman in a coastal village, falsely accused in the death of his apprentice. The performance captured both elements, starting with the establishing shot, a lonely bird flying over the village at dawn. The horns enter like a gathering wave, setting up an authoritative percussion and the tone is set. The fourth movement, Storm, is particularly impressive. Listeners who attended the pre-concert talk should recognize that one without a program.

The newest piece, The Work at Hand, brings mezzo soprano Jamie Barton to the Tampa Bay area with a thrilling performance. American composer Jake Heggie wrote the score with her in mind, as well as Anne Martindale Williams, a longtime principal cellist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who soloed with the orchestra's backing.

The pair have worked on this piece for more than 18 months and seemed fused together, whether vocalizing phrases or pausing between them. Before Heggie got it, The Work at Hand was an unpublished poem by Laura Morefield, about the push and pull of embracing life as it is slipping away. Morefield died of cancer in 2011. From her first entrance, Barton seized the audience with marvelous warmth and power, like the sudden introduction of a spine-stiffening rod. With able backing from the orchestra, the singer and cellist mastered the sudden shifts in the score, alternating rapture and a sense of deep cuts. The performance might be what American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was getting at when he defined beauty as "contrasts held in tension without breaking."

Barton stayed on through Edward Elgar's Sea Pictures. The performance massaged additional meanings out five poems, including Sabbath Morning, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Where Corals Lie, by Richard Gardnett, and The Swimmer, by Adam Lindsay Gordon. The sea themes connected not only land masses but human experience over time.

The concert concludes with the grand opus, Claude Debussy's La Mer. There isn't much to say that Debussy didn't say much better himself, except that this was an inspired rendering of a work that should have special meaning for Floridians. Inspired by Monet's seascapes and the turbulence of Debussy's personal life, the score begins with musical imagery of light on the water. Oboe and flute quicken the pace, building through the lower strings like tides drawing waves from far away. All the strings are fully invested by the third movement, Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea. So, by turns, are the bassoons, all of the horns and percussion in a smashing finale.

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