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Florida Orchestra's 'Ravel & Brahms' shows how composers overcame writer's block

Published Feb. 28, 2016

TAMPA — Maurice Ravel started a composition in 1913. When World War I broke out, he fled Paris, leaving the musical sketches on his desk. Johannes Brahms took 22 years to compose Symphony No. 1 in C minor, in part because of the burden of high expectations.

Both composers triumphed, their work showcased this weekend in the Florida Orchestra's Masterworks concert, Ravel & Brahms, which opened at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major, led by Spanish pianist Javier Perianes, was composed between 1929 and 1931, after he visited the United States and was influenced by jazz. Those pieces and an introductory composition, Andrew Norman's Unstuck, combined for an unusual theme assembled by music director Michael Francis — those periods when nothing worth saving comes out of the creative faucet.

The Ravel piece begins with piano and piccolo, a glissando sliding into a melodious segment that could be mistaken for Gershwin. Perianes is an emotive artist, capable of evoking growling discontent or meditative trance from the keys. He complemented the orchestra's plucked strings, floating flute and moody woodwinds, either with furious interludes or serene resolutions.

After giving one of the most memorable performances of the season and two curtain calls, Perianes gave a brief encore before intermission, from Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor.

The main event, Brahms' 45-minute Op. 68 from Symphony No. 1, came about between gaps from 1854 to 1876. Part of the problem was his talent. Brahms had been saddled at a young age with comparisons to Beethoven. He looked to composer Robert Schumann as a mentor, but in a complicating twist, also fell in love with the composer's wife, pianist and composer Clara Schumann.

All of those life events, including self-doubt and his unfulfilled bond with Clara, are reflected in four movements. Some 60 musicians filled Ferguson Hall with deep horns, full strings and briefly sweet violin and oboe solos. The resolutions in between, especially in the final movement, reveal the power of a musical mastermind.

The evening's most charming event might be the first, a 10-minute Unstuck. Norman, 36, is an architecture buff and 2012 Pulitzer finalist in music, who, according to his website, is "inspired by patterns and textures he encounters in the visual world." In 2008, Norman could not nail down a coherent structure for the piece he was composing. His epiphany came when he noticed a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five on his bookshelf and remembered a key line from the novel: "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time."

That line and Vonnegut's work itself, which jumps back and forth in time, inspired Norman to embrace the seemingly fragmented pieces of musical thought, rather than "overcome" them. The result is something to behold. In the first few minutes alone, Francis evokes furious clashing from strings and percussion, then a kind of melting sound, then a three-cello solo while the rest of the orchestra freezes in place.

Between all that, a herd of symphonic cattle get ready to stampede. You can feel them, about to make a mockery of some barbed wire fence. It's an amazing piece to begin a cleverly constructed program.

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

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