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Chamber Series Afterthoughts: Intimate yet powerful experience

As a concert experience, the Sunday matinee is a preferable choice for many Florida Orchestra patrons, as the leisurely pace, lack of traffic and lure of an early dinner make for a nice wrap on the weekend.

Even the musicians seem more relaxed, judging from last weekend’s TFO Chamber Concerts series under the baton of Resident Conductor Chelsea Gallo. The group sent off this season’s series with an engaging program in Clearwater’s Church of the Ascension, the Tampa Theatre and Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg, all ideal venues that enhance the intimacy and echo of chamber music.

The up-close-and-personal experience means we not only hear every note played, but see the players’ expressions, hear them breathe and even whisper to each other between movements. As a result, we become more engrossed in how we listen.

Sunday’s 90-minute performance at the Palladium proved to be as inventive as it was entertaining. The afternoon opened with Gallo chatting about minimalism, a style of music launched in the 1960s that lulls listeners into a catatonic state through repeated pulses, rhythmic drones and strobe-like dynamics. This describes the Concerto Grosso of Philip Glass, first performed in 1992 in Bonn, Germany, and suitable for both small and large groups − in this case, 18 musicians. Set in a three-movement arc, the music gives winds, brass and strings a series of repetitive assignments that build in texture toward a hypnotic climax.

The group paired down to 14 for Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale d’ete, a tone poem inspired by a vacation in the Swiss Alps. TFO last played a work by Honegger in 2002, when resident conductor Thomas Wilkins led the group in Pacific 231. Let’s hope we hear more from this neglected composer, including any one of his five symphonies.

The musicians captured the idyllic quality of this brief and calming work, with its aroma of Debussy, inflections of birdcalls in the distance and a hat tip to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. A study in understatement, the strings, single woodwinds and horn rarely rose above a whisper in the outer sections.

After intermission, Gallo turned things over to Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer and seven other members of the TFO strings section for Felix Mendelssohn’s preternatural Octet for Strings in E Flat Major, written when the composer was a mere 16. After praising the work as a miracle of chamber music, Multer pondered how a teenager could write with such maturity, and asked the audience, “What were you doing at 16?’’

The Octet moves forward on a trajectory of rich, overlapping melody and rhythm, all of which suggest the spectrum of an orchestra − a chamber piece of symphonic dimension. Ever the concertmaster, Multer inspired his colleagues in fanning the con fuoco passion of the lengthy opening movement and its explosive coda. A graceful C-minor andante followed, dreamlike and full of polyphonic conversation among the eight players. Hints of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (from a year later) could be heard in the shivering tremolos of the scherzo, which became one of the composer’s trademark sounds. The finale began with cellos engaged in a low growl before tossing their theme to violas and violins in a marvel of imitation.

Mendelssohn’s love of Bach is obvious in the grand double fugue, a whirlwind that hints of a tune from Handel’s Messiah and intended to bring an audience to its feet – as it did Sunday afternoon.

Kurt Loft is a freelance journalist, member of the Music Critics Association of North America and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune. He lives in St. Petersburg.

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