TAMPA — A tympanist smashes a pair of mallets onto a drumhead, and the chorus erupts.
With that dramatic stroke, which opens the Carmina Burana, the Florida Orchestra kicked off its 50th season at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. That the orchestra, along with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, performed Carl Orff's iconic 1936 paean to passion subsumed by an indifferent wheel of fate is hardly unusual; that happens every few years.
But this weekend will be remembered for the way the orchestra seized its moment, maximizing every ounce of care to put an exclamation point on a half-century in the Tampa Bay area.
TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: THE FLORIDA ORCHESTRA
Masses of people have doubtless been moved by those opening bars, a series of blasts suddenly switched out with conspiratorial whispers, who do not know its name. Among those who do, the Carmina is so popular and so widely appropriated by everything from sports franchises to Gatorade to reality television, some have faulted it as too reliable a crowd pleaser. Others ding the work for its popularity with Hitler and the Nazis, despite a bad review by the Nazi Party newspaper in the 1937 Frankfurt premiere.
Supertitles with English translations of Latin and archaic German poems, said to be authored by defrocked monks, greatly enhanced the concert experience. Soloists were all challenged to reach the top of their registers, or even a touch beyond. Baritone Michael Nyby ripped the lower tones with operatic force, strained to cover some runs on the upper end, and cleared the top like a high jumper who grazes the bar but does not dislodge it.
Tenor John Kaneklides, in an unusually comic touch, carried a symbolic square of white feathers to perform the lament of a swan roasting on a spit, somehow generating enough of a falsetto torque to land on the top step when he had to. Meanwhile soprano Madison Leonard delivered the truly spine-stiffening singing, repeatedly coloring the role of love goddess Venus with maturity and warmth.
For its part, an energized Master Chorale under interim artistic director Doreen Rao fused memorably with the orchestra in several sequences, alternately irreverent or joyous, from prostitutes warming up their siren's song to the lighting-fast in taberna drinking song by the men, picking up strength for the thundering O Fortuna reprise in conclusion. Similarly, the Lumina Youth Choirs contributed when called upon, part of the tapestry of mixed voices, percussion and unusual rhythms that make the Carmina unique in all of music.
But this night and this event was all about the orchestra, which showed care and precision throughout. Under the baton of music director Michael Francis, an all-hands-on-deck contingent navigated the sharp turns that compellingly drive the piece. You might have heard the world's top orchestras with unlimited resources perform it louder, but the Florida Orchestra demonstrates as much understanding of the music as anyone could. That fact proves once again that the most serious musicians are listeners first, engaged in a deep suffusion in every piece in which performance represents but the final step. There were too many irreplaceable musical touches to count, but the airtight contributions of side-by-side pianists, the unassailable attack of strings and impeccably times entrances of horn and percussion sections stand out most.
The first half opened with Ritual Dances, from English composer Michael Tippett's 1955 opera, The Midsummer Marriage. A companion piece to the Carmina in its nod to a naturalism or even paganism, the four dances (their passages also marked by supertitles) follow three chases among animals. Lower strings move stealthily behind a darting flute, denoting a hound chasing a rabbit. Swimming swimming clarinets take over in the second dance titled, "Otter Chases Fish."
Meaning of the vaguely Jungian quest, all the way to "voluntary human sacrifice" in the fourth dance, remains opaque. The music, again delicately interpreted, and its embedded mysteries is itself the point. The evening began with Francis leading orchestra and audience in a season-opening national anthem. This time the music director added a celebratory post script to the audience.
"Happy Birthday to us."
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.