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Review: Violinist Benjamin Beilman electrifies at Florida Orchestra concert

Benjamin Beilman performs Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Florida Orchestra. The concert will be repeated tonight.
Published Nov. 6, 2016

TAMPA — A young violinist got the crowd leaping to its feet, and the Florida Orchestra celebrated three innovative composers on Friday with Mozart's "Jupiter'' symphony.

A nearly full Morsani Hall, at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, took in the performance of Benjamin Beilman, who walked on stage with a 1731 Stradivarius violin, out of which he managed to get some really uncommon sounds. Beilman, 26, has been on a fast track to musical fame and is surely on the verge of being recognized as a top-tier performer.

He led the orchestra in Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, composed in the euphoric aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. The composer, who refused to be boxed in — he called his own work either classical or neo-classical, modern, motoric and lyrical — delivered a piece that is all of those things. It started fast and rarely let up, a dialogue with the woodwinds preceding some of the most demanding violin work ever written.

The sweetly skipping melody of the opening turns brutal, calling for rough, metallic sounds as the soloist's fingers fly furiously up and down the neck of the violin. Think of a motorcyclist racing down the side of a mountain without a road or a path, and somehow staying upright. That's what it is like listening to Beilman play.

The main attraction, Symphony No. 41, by Mozart, was thrilling in a different way. The "Jupiter" symphony, as it was later nicknamed, was the composer's last and, it is widely believed, his most impressive. Despite being composed during a time of poverty and when the demand for his services as a composer or even as a piano teacher were in decline, it is a joyous work. But as always with Mozart, the music changes just at the moment you think you know where it is going.

It opens in a C-major key, a grand declaration, then seems to retract that promise in the next few bars — an extraordinary move in 1788, music director and conductor Michael Francis noted at a preconcert lecture. With each movement, the symphony adds elements, increasing complexity. The orchestra rallied to the task from all corners, with particularly lovely sequences by the strings. This symphony demonstrates as well as anything by Bach the mathematical component in musical genius. If you doubt that, just try to wrap your mind around what the "Jupiter" symphony does, with as many as five musical themes in the finale.

The performance itself was technically proficient, as this orchestra nearly always is. Yet there was also something oddly clinical about it, islands of detachment between the more stirring passages.

The concert began with Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in C. As with Mozart, also created during a personal crisis. In a six-month period starting in 1938, the composer's daughter, wife and mother died. Stravinsky himself wrote part of the symphony as a patient in a tuberculosis sanitorium. Yet the symphony opens with an aura of new beginnings, with creatures piping up from various corners of a musical swamp. The metric imbalances and dissonant harmonies that mark Stravinsky's work soon emerge. A contrapuntal chaos takes over, even in the slower second movement. The orchestra excels at handling a self-sustaining rhythm in this dialogue, when only minimal percussion is called for.

While the innovative legacies of all three composers featured creates one theme, the personal crises of Mozart and Stravinsky point out another. In his lecture, Francis noted that neither of the composers' works express grief so much as deliver a means of transcending it.

"What I find so touching about the combination of Stravinsky and Mozart is the fact that art — in this case, the composition of music — helped them through their trial, helped them through their terrible pain," he said. "And not necessarily as a cathartic process to write pain onto the page, but as a guiding light out of the tunnel."

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

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