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Opening Night Afterthoughts: New music, old favorites shed light on today’s world

I first met Michael Ippolito at his parents’ home in Brandon more than 20 years ago, as he sat at the piano crafting his latest creation.

The Rhapsodie Pathetique, which was played by the Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra, would soon be followed by other originals, including Waltz and Triptych, and these were anything but the scribblings of a teenager. The Florida Orchestra commissioned them and gave their premieres to audiences around Tampa Bay.

Now 36, Ippolito teaches music composition at Texas State University in San Marcos, but keeps his grassroots connection back home. He struck a resounding note over the weekend by opening the orchestra’s 54th season with another commission: his freshly minted a la fenestra, a short, shimmering work based on verse by the Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarch.

Ippolito found inspiration for his new work in the Covid environment, and linked it to Petrarch’s poem about love during another epidemic, the Black Death. The music is abstract, but suggests the poet sitting at an open window, a lone voice waiting to connect with others during a troubled time.

“While this text is almost 700 years old, to me the image of the poet alone at the window seemed to summarize so much of our shared experience during the Covid pandemic,’’ he said. “Lockdowns and social distancing have meant that many of us spent months alone, missing friends and family and longing for a return to normal life.’’

Under the baton of Music Director Michael Francis at Mahaffey Theater on Saturday, the orchestra opened with a mournful horn solo, followed by the strings in ascending response. Soon, the music swells with tense dissonances and the resonance of three brass choirs in the balcony and box sections. Near the end, the orchestra quotes a phrase by Orlando di Lasso, who in 1557 also set Petrarch’s poem to music.

“The music gradually builds to include more instruments responding to the horn’s call,’’ Ippolito added, “a musical depiction of connecting across distances.’’

The program continued with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer captured the spirit and wit of these enchanting postcard concertos. Multer’s personal touches kept the music fresh, and the reduced orchestra – 25 players with harpsichord – created a transparent sheen. During the third movement of Autumn, the strings mimicked the guns of the hunt by playing col legno with the back of the bow.

The full orchestra (with cellos and basses aligned to the left of the podium) devoted the second half to Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony in a tight, rhythmically focused performance. The final movement’s transition from darkness to light brought the audience to its feet.

Pairing a la fenestra with two well-known masterpieces wasn’t just about musical contrast. Ippolito said he’s honored to be rubbing elbows with two giants, and to be representing our own age.

“I think it’s important to commission and perform new work because music is a living practice that is always shifting and evolving, and new work is a crucial part of that,’’ he said. “Of course, this can also be reflected in performances of old works because there isn’t one right way to play Beethoven or Vivaldi, and we should celebrate and make space for different approaches.’’

The music of these venerable composers no doubt will be performed a century from now. Ippolito hopes his work stands such a test and reflects something about our time in history.

“Imagining that people are still putting on concerts and playing music in a hundred years, I suppose they would learn something about us by the music we left behind,’’ he said. “So what they choose to celebrate will tell as much about them as it does about us.’’

*Pictured: Music Director Michael Francis, General Manager Edward Parsons and composer Michael Ippolito take part in a pre-concert conversation at the Straz Center.