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Concert Afterthoughts: TFO gives orchestral gems new life onstage

The Florida Orchestra continues to adapt during this unusual season, and anyone who attended the Tampa Bay Times Masterworks program this past weekend got an unexpected twist under the baton of guest conductor Thomas Wilkins.

The musicians put new clothes on a neglected work that has come out of hiding after more than a century, while peeling back the layers on one of the most popular gems in the repertoire. The two sold-out concerts at the Mahaffey Theater offered an unprecedented performance of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha: Suite from the Ballet Music, followed by a streamlining of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World” for a socially distanced stage.

The result? A fresh way to listen – and proof that tinkering with the texture of an orchestral work isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

One of the great triumphs of the concert was what happened behind the scenes for the Hiawatha Suite, which has languished because of a one-dimensional score.

All that changed because of extra work by TFO Principal Librarian Ella Fredrickson and colleagues at the Omaha Symphony, who corrected the orchestra parts and typset a new full score for performance. (Percy E. Fletcher orchestrated the music of Coleridge-Taylor posthumously.)

“The score was in such bad shape,’’ said Wilkins, who serves as music director of the Omaha Symphony. “It was only a piano-conductor score, so you didn’t know who had what (part) so you sort of had to wave your arms and guess … Now I’ve programmed it two more times next season. I fell in love with the music.’’

Conducting from the reduced score could have made the music sound flat. Having a full score for reference, Wilkins said, gives the piece “legs and life, and a greater potential to be performed.’’

During Saturday’s matinee, TFO offered an engaging, colorful depiction of the six short sections: Wooing, The Marriage Feast, Bird Scene, Conjurors’ Dance, Departure, and Reunion. The relaxed performance seemed to match the composer’s intent of “native simplicity, unaffected expression and unforced realism.’’

But how would Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, an instant classic at its premiere in 1893, survive a “reduced’’ interpretation by only 50 players? After all, its rhythmic engine is usually driven by a fusillade of 80 or more musicians, giving it tangible presence and power.

Any concern about a diluted sound evaporated moments into the reverential adagio, which quickly turns aggressive and pulls listeners forward in their seats. Yes, a lighter blanket of sound, but still warm and comforting. The famed English horn solo (performed by Jeffrey Stephenson) in the largo was a delight, and the rousing scherzo came off like a rustic dance. TFO galloped through the finale – which may have inspired John Williams in composing the soundtrack to Jaws – the sound transparent without losing the richness we expect from this propulsive climax.

No doubt Covid has changed the concert experience this season, but Wilkins believes imaginative thinking has kept the music playing in a meaningful way.

“Orchestras are learning to be very adaptable very quickly,’’ he adds. “We’re creating a new product, and we’re doing it with a reduced ensemble.’’

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