It doesn’t require a lot of evidence to prove The Florida Orchestra performs at a high level, always consistent and well-oiled, whether during a Masterworks program, a pops event or an intimate chamber concert.
But evidence in abundance jumped off the stage in two recent performances just four days apart, and both struck me as nothing less than, well, remarkable listening experiences. Part of what made them noteworthy was their contrast: one a barrage of coordinated musicianship that forced me back in my seat, the other a quiet conversation that had me leaning forward into the mix.
The former was a scaled down orchestra under the baton of Music Director Michael Francis at Mahaffey Theater in a delirious account of Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite. Scored for a large battery of percussion and strings (no woodwinds or brass), the music cut through the hall like a knife.
This was TFO playing as a tightly integrated unit, completely in control, yet sounding relaxed and almost improvisational. But what struck many listeners was the percussion section, which doesn’t always get its due. In one night they earned a season’s pay.
The crew at the back of the stage were in a full attack mode in bringing out the suite’s biting humor and explosions of color. Big shout-out to TFO’s Principal Percussionist John Shaw, Principal Timpani John Bannon and Kurt Grissom, along with Jess Ridgeway and Gavin Pritchard. They played a virtual encyclopedia of instruments, including the high-hat, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, chimes, whip, castanets, cowbell, bongos, woodblocks, tambourine and shakers.
In contrast, two of the orchestra’s own made strong statements a few days later during a Palladium Chamber Players concert, which opened with TFO’s principal clarinet, Natalie Hoe, in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Quintet in A Major. In an earlier interview, I asked Hoe what makes this music special to her.
“Mozart is a true master, essentially creating a condensed chamber opera full of character, drama and beauty,’’ she said. “It’s truly a magical experience as you go on this journey with just five instruments weaving a tale.’’
Poised throughout, Hoe captured the work’s divergent colors and the poetry of her lines, especially in the sumptuous larghetto.
“The clarinet part is very lyrical, and requires a beautiful glowing sound in the second movement that transcends time, but in the other movements you can hear great character changes,’’ she added. “What I love about this quintet is that each part take turns in playing an important role.’’
Hoe came back with pianist Jeewon Park in a rousing performance of Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata, making her instrument sound like an entire woodwind section.
TFO patrons are more than familiar with Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer, who sits at the front of the stage and leads the violins with his precise sound and animated gestures. He’s usually part of a big sonic picture, so to hear him lead the Chamber Players in the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor was more personal, and from the onset he helped drive a riveting conversation between piano and strings.
Watching Multer and his crew from a few feet away gave me chills, especially during the finale: a free-form movement of ominous mood and variation that comes to a head, releasing the pent-up tension that kept everyone in the audience on edge for nearly 45 minutes.