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Florida Orchestra's opens season in smashing form with Beethoven's Symphony No. 9

Published Oct. 3, 2016

TAMPA — Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 has become so ingrained in music, it is easy to imagine it was always there somehow. That is a testament to the power of a composition that percolated in the composer's mind for 35 years, and underwent more than 200 revisions before completion in 1824.

Hearing it live, as the Florida Orchestra gives us a chance to do with the opening of its season this weekend, renews appreciation as only a performance can. A full Morsani Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Friday heard a magnificent blend of orchestration and voices, two dimensions Beethoven tinkered unceasingly to unite. The result is one of the grandest compositions ever written, pulled off splendidly by the orchestra and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. It was also a good use of the Morsani's superior acoustics.

Four soloists also distinguished themselves, singing as a quartet in the final movement, the musical setting of Friedrich Schiller's poem, Ode to Joy. Music director Michael Francis, who conducted the concert, said in a recent interview that playing Beethoven sharpens musicians and brings out their best. This performance was as good as any over the past year. The 65 minutes it consumed drained out, as through a large funnel. Percussionists violently introduced movements. Strings and horns and woodwinds replied in counterpoint.

The music was composed during a later, spiritual phase of Beethoven's life, during which he sought to unify humanity. He expressed an internal conflict between writing instrumentally and for a chorus in all its raw power,, hinting through the first three movements at a reconciliation to come in the fourth. The Adagio of the third movement represents a kind of climax in itself, a melody that can't be forgotten, the crest of a sine wave before the furious conflicts begin anew.

The orchestra follows the music's building momentum at every turn, such as the melody of the Ode to Joy segment played in unison by the lower strings. Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus opened the poem with warmth and color. Soon soprano Yetzabel Arias, contralto Lynne McMurtry, tenor Robin Yujoong Kim had joined in along with the chorale, which had been silent in the previous movements. The symphony challenges all who play and sing it to reflect the unity the it describes, as reflected in its final stanza: "We join you, ye millions; Take this kiss to the entire world."

The concert began with Francis Poulenc's Gloria, an interesting pairing with Beethoven in a year the orchestra is emphasizing French and Russian composers. Introduced in 1961, the French composer's piece reflects both his Catholicism and a cheerful defiance of convention. The orchestra reflected the change in tone as the composition shifts between a religious focus and Poulenc's neo-classical influences, notably that of Igor Stravinsky. The highlight of the piece is an extended three-way conversation between Arias, the orchestra and the chorale.

Arias, the Cuban-born soprano, is a remarkable talent. The soothing articulations between these triangle points underscored Poulenc's vaunted facility to write for voices, particularly the upper soprano register. Pulled in opposite directions by his religious upbringing and free-spirited instincts, the composer ended up restating an ever familiar text as a set of new, fresh utterances. The effect, replicated by the orchestra and chorale, is one of deeper reverence because it has been so uniquely expressed. During one balmy interlude, the strings and woodwinds might have been describing trees swaying in the wind on a Pacific island. The chorale surrounded that island in waves, and the soprano soared above it all like a weather satellite.

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

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