Opening Night concerts dig into cultural roots of Tampa Bay

The people who make up the Tampa Bay area come from every inch of the globe, and The Florida Orchestra pays tribute to this diversity for Opening Night concerts this weekend.

“This is an unusual program,’’ said Music Director Michael Francis, who opens his fifth season with TFO. “The purpose really is: What is Tampa Bay, and who are the people who live here? So, I wanted to draw attention to a musical portrayal of the elements that make up Tampa Bay.’’

The five works on the bill include composers from the United States, Norway, Germany and France, although you’ll hear music that tips its hat to Cuba and Spain, too. The most unusual piece is a first by the orchestra, Mothership by young Virginia-born composer Mason Bates. Part classical pundit, part disc jockey, Bates has developed a compelling voice, writing music “in a real American language,’’ said Francis. He views this eclectic new work as the “musical equivalent of a modern city,’’ an ear smacker that blends orchestral, techno, pop, and swing motifs.

Mothership was first performed in 2011 at the Sydney Opera House and broadcast live on YouTube to nearly 2 million viewers. The one-movement, 10-minute work is a rhythmic tour de force that wastes no time getting off the ground. Bates calls it an action-packed, electro-acoustic feast for the senses that “imagines the orchestra as a mothership that is ‘docked’ by several visiting soloists, who offer brief but virtuosic riffs on the work’s thematic material over action-packed electro-acoustic orchestral figuration.’’

The orchestra opens the night with George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, a musical postcard capturing Gershwin’s whirlwind two-week vacation in Havana, where he admitted to too much booze and not enough sleep. But he was fascinated by the colorful street bands and their instruments: bongos, claves, gourds, and maracas.

The overture is a single movement to be played with “warmth and expressiveness.’’ Wanting to showcase the original instruments he heard in Havana, Gershwin insisted they be placed in front of the conductor’s stand, treating them as soloists and delighting audiences lucky enough to sit close to the stage.

The concert’s centerpiece is Edvard Grieg’s evergreen Piano Concerto with soloist Aldo López-Gavilán, a Cuban pianist who sent audiences into a frenzy last season when he played Rhapsody in Blue with TFO. It will be interesting to see and hear how he mesmerizes us this time around.

The concerto opens with a salvo: a timpani roll followed by a series of descending octaves by the piano. From there, Grieg condenses his material into a neatly packed development section with not one wasted note. The adagio requires an unerring delicacy from the soloist, free of frothy showmanship, and when done well this movement sounds as if crafted by Mozart. The piece closes with a fast-paced Norwegian dance known as a halling, and listeners leave the hall humming tunes all the way home.

Who better to represent our area’s German heritage than ol’ Ludwig van Beethoven, who steps in this weekend with his Leonore Overture No. 3. At just over 12 minutes and crafted in sonata form, the overture is a marvel of musical storytelling, capturing the light-triumphs-darkness motif as well as anything Beethoven ever wrote. This compact, infectious music sets in motion themes of injustice, empowerment, good over evil, hope, and the exhilaration of freedom. It also kicks off TFO’s two-year celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday.

TFO wraps up its opening weekend with a tribute to Spain, even though the composer, Maurice Ravel, was French. But his famous Bolero is a purely Spanish twirl, and one of the more insistent pieces of classical music ever written. Yes, Bolero is a study in repetition – the same C major pattern repeats itself 13 times against a snare drum – but it would be an injustice to call it simplistic. With a long crescendo based on two themes and decorated in the flavors of Spanish flamenco, the work moves forward on a persistent rhythm that grows louder and louder. The genius of Bolero is not that it challenges listeners, but that it makes no demands at all.

For more detailed program notes, click here

Opening Night
Michael Francis, conductor
Aldo López-Gavilán, piano

Gershwin: Cuban Overture
Grieg: Piano Concerto
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3
Mason Bates: Mothership
Ravel: Bolero

Free Pre-concert Conversation included with all tickets. Starts 1 hour before concert.

Free tickets for kids and teens in advance to this and all Tampa Bay Times Masterworks concerts.

(Click on each venue below for tickets)
Fri, Sept 27, 8 pm, Straz Center
Sat, Sept 28, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater
Sun, Sept 29, 2 pm, Ruth Eckerd Hall – Matinee!

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