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Afterthoughts: Enthralling, creative night of Mozart’s Requiem and so much more

Florida Orchestra listeners went back in time over the weekend, visiting music dressed in Medieval, Renaissance, Classical and 20th century garb. This was no ordinary program: Teaming up with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, the orchestra presented an ambitious mix of song and symphonic, all leading up to Mozart’s tragically imperfect Requiem.

Anyone familiar with Hildegard von Bingen ─ a nun born in 1098 in what is now Germany ─ no doubt knows her music through recordings, as live performances are rare. But the group opened the weekend’s concerts with her O virtus sapientiae (O Strength of Wisdom) a serene a cappella work lasting just two minutes.

An offstage vocal quartet created a cathedral-like resonance before joining the full chorus on stage, carrying book-lit scores in their hands as they walked down the aisle. Music Director Michael Frances earlier asked for the audience to hold applause until the end of the first half, so he could serve a series of appetizers before the larger entrée.

“As ancient as it is, it’s really modern in sound,’’ Amy Bullard, a soprano with the chorus, said of the Bingen. “It’s very humanist, and hugely challenging, being straightforward on the page but not simple at all to sing as a group.’’

The Bingen led without pause into Mindaugas Urbaitis’ Lacrimosa, a deconstruction on the eponymous section in Mozart’s Requiem, using small motifs and scale patterns that repeat themselves until they come to an abrupt amen.

Then came Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem for orchestra, which opens with its own Lacrymosa, followed by a Day of Wrath and a Requiem aeternam as a finale. Unlike the traditional Mass for the Dead, however, this music is without chorus and sacred themes. It possesses, however, an undeniable sense of loss, grief and renewal, and remains one of the composer’s most potent creations.

A small group of singers returned to their offstage quarters for Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus, a setting of Psalm 51 in which the music unfolds in two alternating choirs against a bridge of plainchant, with the singers uniting at the end. A lone soprano sustained the work’s trademark sound ─ a fragile high C note ─ that floated through Mahaffey Theater on Saturday. The effect gave me chills.

The Catholic Church in Rome so coveted this music that it claimed exclusive rights to the score, and anyone performing it elsewhere “would be excommunicated,’’ Francis noted at the start of the concert. A 14-year-old Mozart apparently didn’t care: He heard the piece while visiting Rome with his father in 1770, and later in the day transcribed it from memory. Since the papal ban was lifted 100 years later, the Miserere has become a staple of choirs around the world.

Orchestra and chorus devoted the evening’s second half to the Mozart, a torso that for decades has stimulated debate over how much is the composer’s own music beyond the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. The rest was fleshed out, allegedly, by his 25-year-old student, Franz Sussmayr, who infamously forged Mozart’s signature on the score to help Mozart’s wife, Constanze, receive the money from its commission. Francis conducted a 1993 revision by the Harvard musicologist Robert Levin, who introduced an Amen fugue at the end of the Lacrimosa, among other tweaks and harmonic reflections.

Prepared by outgoing artistic director Brett Karlin, the 80-voice chorus was at the top of its game, eloquent in diction and passionate in delivery, gliding through the contrapuntal thicket of the opening Kyrie. Also of note were the vocal soloists: soprano Katrina Galka, mezzo Sarah Larsen, tenor Rodrick Dixon, and bass-baritone Kevin Deas. Dixon’s expressive voice brought his sections to life with affirmative ease, and served as an anchor for his colleagues.

In sum, this Masterworks program not only covered a spectrum of music stretching nearly a millennium, it continued in the spirit of an earlier “serenity’’ concept that gives audiences a chance to reflect and recharge during another year of Covid. More and more orchestras around the country are committing to this model of shorter, off-beat works that stretch the imagination and magnify what musicians can do on stage. But even without a pandemic, such creative programming should be here to stay, and we will see plenty of examples next season.

It also says something about TFO’s evolution as an interpreter of music. Francis has been at the podium for seven seasons, and he senses what listeners want and connects the dots with assurance. Yes, the orchestra will always provide the traditional lineup of overture, concerto and symphony, yet it continues to think outside the box ─ as witnessed this past weekend ─ by presenting works in a fresh and enlightening way.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5
Don’t miss the final Masterworks concert of the season May 21 & 22.
Also featuring Benjamin Grosvenor for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
Details and tickets here.

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