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Review: New Florida Orchestra conductor Michael Francis wows crowd

Published Oct. 25, 2014

By STEPHANIE HAYES

Times Performing Arts Critic

TAMPA -- It was an evening of significance for the Florida Orchestra, in many ways.

First, Friday's Masterworks concert introduced new conductor Michael Francis, who officially starts his contract in 2015. This weekend marks the first of his three conducting jobs this season.

Francis was "delighted" to have the role, he told the crowd at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. The audience showered him with cheers and applause as he stood smiling in tux and tails.

It was significant, too, that the soloist for the evening came from the orchestra's own ranks. Jeffrey Multer is the orchestra's concertmaster and a mammoth talent appointed in the era of former conductor Stefan Sanderling. The choice spoke of unity.

But it was the musical selections that held significance to the conductor and the soloist, who both spread emotions into the crowd like a billowing blanket.

The concert began with an odd nugget of music in Ives' Central Park In the Dark, an experimental piece from 1906 that imagines just what the title says. The strings were sequestered off stage, providing distant sounds of night. It all rose into a cacophony of street cars and fire engines before fading with an echo. It was fun once you figured out what was going on.

Multer's work on Barber's Violin Concerto was transcendent, perhaps because of its significance to him. He learned it during a difficult time in his own life, he said during the pre-concert conversation. He called the piece a "breakthrough."

Multer looked youthful and stylish in a blue suit and plaid shirt. He staggered the crowd from the first note of the concerto, which opens uncompromisingly strong but remains subtle through the first two movements. The cadenzas are restrained for a violin concerto, which may be why American composer Samuel Barber couldn't please his clients with it (it's a famous musical debacle). Barber seems to make fun of more showy works in the frenetic third movement, which in Multer's hands was exhausting in the best way. People shot to their feet at the end.

Multer was buoyed by dynamic work from the oboe and strings, with soulful work from the cellos. Multer and Francis had good chemistry, swelling and falling together in time.

It was the final piece that had special significance to Francis, who is moving to Tampa Bay from England. British composer Edward Elgar's Symphony No. 1 brought a taste of his old home to his new one.

The symphony flips between uplifting hope and worrisome doubt, which is Elgar trying to come to terms with the troubling polarity of his own personality. The violas and woodwinds ushered in the lovely opening theme, followed soon by the discordant tritone, often called the "devil's tone." It's the same thing you hear in Bernstein's West Side Story when everything gets real complicated. It was forbidden in early church music and to this day imparts an unsettling chill.

Elgar's attempts to work out his demons brought out the most passion in Francis, who might have galloped off the stage with the military rhythms of the orchestra. A few magic moments had everyone in the theater syncopated, tied together in the sights and sounds. And that felt most significant of all.

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

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