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Florida Orchestra presents a joyful, sparkling night of Beethoven

Guest conductor Perry So sparkles at the podium, obviously enjoying his musical task.
Published Feb. 22, 2015

TAMPA — Everyone wants to hear Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. It's the one everyone knows, the one that transcends space and time. Beethoven was confronting his worsening deafness in the Fifth, and it's tinged with doom and madness, and finally, victory!

Symphony No. 4? It's the kid eating pudding alone at lunch, not played nearly as much. Thankfully, the Florida Orchestra took up the task Friday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, because it's certainly worthy. It capped a night of fluid storytelling across generations.

The Fourth may not be as monumental as others, but it's different in a satisfying way. Beethoven was on vacay when he wrote this for a wealthy count, and the result is playful, relaxed, almost pastoral. The orchestra captured the symphony's conversational feel, nailing the abbreviated call and response that threads from instrument to instrument, bassoon talking to oboe talking to flute and so on.

It was a blast to watch guest conductor Perry So, whose job so obviously brings him joy. He had a smile on his face in the first movement of the Beethoven and was controlled, despite dancing on the podium. He was a vibrant storyteller in the pre-concert conversation, and his respect for narrative came through in the performance.

The masterworks program opened with Wagner's overture to the opera Tannhauser, a quest to find spiritual absolution. The orchestra told the story with fullness, the low and grumbling slow march, the dance of the brass and winds, the frolicking, sexy parts. Watch for intense, nimble fingering from the cellists, and see if you can spot the bit that sounds like a certain melody from The Sound of Music.

Nothing thrilled the audience as much as Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2, with a stunning solo turn from French pianist Pascal Roge. The concerto starts with an almost improvisational feel, followed by urgent notes from the orchestra, then a woodland fairy center, then a rapid-fire display of technical prowess.

Roge infused the work with joie de vivre, and the orchestra provided a steady, atmospheric platform. It's easy to forgive the concerto's occasional meandering when it's just so luscious and French. As the conductor put it, "It's sparkly. It's full of champagne!"

Here's a little story that probably contributed to the dynamic energy on stage: Roge recorded this very concerto in 1981, a full year before conductor So was born.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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