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Review: Florida Orchestra concert lets lesser-known works shine

Published Apr. 6, 2017

TAMPA — This weekend's Florida Orchestra concert takes a different path, showcasing less celebrated works by Maurice Ravel, Ludwig van Beethoven and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

In another novel turn, Ignat Solzhenitsyn conducted and soloed for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2. The son of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, novelist and outspoken critic of the Soviet Union, has a distinguished career in both conducting and performance.

Before Friday's concert at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, the orchestra hadn't played Ravel's Alborada del Gracioso in a Masterworks series in 40 years. The Beethoven concerto got its first airing in 15 years. And for the first time in its history, the orchestra played Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1, which sent the composer into a three-year funk after its disastrous 1897 debut. Historians have pointed to non-musical elements affecting that performance in Moscow and its reception, allowing the symphony to mature with hindsight.

The concert opens with Ravel's take on the alba, or "morning song," which for the French Basque native meant 11th century troubadours. Their songs were light and romantic, oboe and drums creating a dance tempo. They often centered on a lover's exhilarating flight from someone's bedroom, when a passionate night gives way to danger. It was easy to hear echoes of Ravel's La Valse from the orchestra's concert last month, or of Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole.

Principal bassoonist Anthony Georgeson was responsible for some nice moments, playing with a tenderness and subtlety not typically associated with the instrument. You could hear Ravel playing with volume and tempo, giving the melody a slight surrealistic warp from the Sandman's bag of dreams.

The highlight was Solzhenitsyn's double duty in the concerto. Facing a pared-down orchestra, mostly strings and few woodwinds, he sat and got his bearings at the bench. He then stood to conduct the first movement, out of that fascinating period in which Beethoven was still molded by Haydn.

Solzhenitsyn is a burly man, physical yet restrained. He conducted, then sat and played virtuosic solos the composer had written for himself to perform. That back and forth continued seamlessly. The left hand that rose in a finishing flourish continued the upward flight to direct the strings. He worked his way up and down the keyboard with great expression and shot up like bread from a toaster to keep the ensemble on the beat.

Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1 has been revived, although it took 50 years for it to first come out of mothballs. Its collapse came not so much from what it was as for extra-musical influences, including a conductor who drank on the job and traditionalist Russian critics, who thought his music wasn't nationalistic enough. As one of the first modernists, Rachmaninoff caught flak from all sides, with some successors saying he lacked innovation. History has deemed otherwise.

Symphony No. 1 begins as if in mid-thought, without the kind of thesis statement Rachmaninoff would later establish in Piano Concerto No. 2 and Symphony No. 2, which resurrected his career. But the earmarks of genius are there — the effusive melodious idiom, the cinematic sweep and the raw power, driven home as Solzhenitsyn slashed the air like a knife blade in a fierce coda.

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

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