By John Fleming
ORLANDO, Fla. – How will a Brooklyn hipster fare in bringing his vision of classical music to the theme park capital of the world? The Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra is about to find out with its new music director, Eric Jacobsen, a cellist turned conductor known for his work as a founding member of such cutting-edge groups as The Knights chamber orchestra and Brooklyn Rider string quartet, as well as playing with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble.
Jacobsen made his debut as Orlando music director Oct. 24. He led a program of standard repertoire — Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with soloist Joyce Yang — plus, in something of a coup, the world premiere of Gabriel Kahane’s Freight & Salvage for string orchestra.
Tall and tousle-haired, sporting purple socks to go with his tie and tails on opening night and chatting up the near sold-out crowd of 2,000 from the stage of the Bob Carr Theater, the 33-year-old Jacobsen is at least a stylistic departure from his predecessors, Christopher Wilkins and Hal France, both conventional maestros. In black jeans and T-shirt at a rehearsal that morning, the boyish music director looked as if he would be right at home behind the counter of a skateboard shop.
Jacobsen seems like a good fit with the Orlando Philharmonic, one of the more populist symphony orchestras in the country. A quarter of the 40 board seats are held by musicians, as are many administrative posts. With a $3.5 million budget, it’s a per-service orchestra, without an annual contract for musicians, and programs are usually performed only once, though this past weekend there was a second concert on Oct. 25.
The Philharmonic was formed in 1993 in the wake of the folding of Orlando’s long-troubled Florida Symphony Orchestra, which was followed several years later by the Orlando Opera going under. The musicians and community leaders who founded the Philharmonic made financial stability a priority, and the orchestra has posted a balanced budget each year of its existence, according to David Schillhammer, executive director since 2000. That track record made an impression on Jacobsen during the music director search last season. “Without question, this organization was attractive to me,” he said after the rehearsal. “Everyone — orchestra, management, board — is invested in each other.”
Jacobsen didn’t study conducting during his four years at Juilliard, where he focused on the cello, and his experience on the podium is still limited. He conducts The Knights, has been guest conductor of the symphonies of Detroit, Baltimore, Alabama, and others, and is in his second season as music director of the Greater Bridgeport Symphony in Connecticut. Many standard orchestra works are new to him as a conductor. He undertook the Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Ravel for the first time in Orlando. Nevertheless, his interpretations were invariably interesting, with baton technique that has a kind of old-school quality, his broad gestures made in a deceptively offhand but clear manner.
The opening concert had its share of miscues, such as the smudgy offstage trumpet in Leonore, occasional balance problems in the Tchaikovsky concerto, and a tendency of the brass to blare in big moments. An acidic tone crept into the upper register of the violins in tutti sections. In general, though, there was a refreshing buoyancy to much of the playing, with Jacobsen’s tempos on the quick side. He has rearranged the orchestra seating slightly to bring the winds several feet closer to the audience, and principal flute Colleen Blagov shone in Daphnis et Chloé. It is the first of eight Ravel pieces scheduled in 2015-16, with the French composer serving as “the through line” of the season’s programming, the music director said in a pre-concert talk.
Yang was making her fourth appearance with the Philharmonic, and she brought down the house with Tchaikovsky’s evergreen concerto. A highlight was her spectacular performance of the jazzy, almost improvisational cadenza in the first movement that stands in such jolting contrast to all the romantic tunes.
After Jacobsen was named music director last May, one of his first tasks was to see if he could line up a new work to open the season, and for that he turned to Kahane, his friend and fellow Brooklynite, who just happened to be working on a piece co-commissioned by A Far Cry, a chamber orchestra in Boston, and The Knights. Jacobsen, who plans to take up residence in Orlando, arranged for the Philharmonic to be not only the third commissioner, but also the first to perform the work, Freight & Salvage.
Kahane is an eclectic talent whose work ranges from musical theater (February House, premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 2012) to singer-songwriter pop (The Ambassador, a song cycle on life in Los Angeles released in 2014 and hailed by Rolling Stone as “one of the year’s very best albums”) to orchestral and chamber music. His father, Jeffrey Kahane, is a well-known concert pianist and conductor, and Gabriel was unable to be in Orlando for the premiere because father and son were playing with the North Carolina Symphony. That program included Jeffrey as conductor-soloist in the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major and Gabriel as singer-narrator-guitarist-banjo player in Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States, inspired by the similarly named Depression-era WPA guides.
Freight & Salvage is an effort to reconcile the composer’s pop and classical sides, Kahane said in an interview. Its basic material comes from “Winter Song,” which is on his 2011 album Where Are the Arms. The influences he has cited are typically heady, including Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel The Road and Schubert’s String Quartet in G major, D. 887.
At about 13 minutes long, the Kahane work was performed by 17 strings, with the Philharmonic’s excellent concertmaster, Rimma Bergeron-Langlois, standing out in a series of brief, keening solos. For all its spiky dissonance, the music has a rootsy Americana flavor, with occasional outbreaks of frenetic hoedown fiddling. While fragments of “Winter Song” show up over and over again, they are quickly dropped and the sweet melody is never fully voiced until something surprising happens eight or nine minutes into the piece, when most of the string players put down their instruments to sing Kahane’s pop song. The lyrics, printed without explanation in the playbill, are elusive and poetic, with “kids fall down in the snow” as a refrain. Under Jacobsen, the performance was lovely and strange, and having the instrumentalists sing the simple, lilting song was a warm touch, a sort of do-it-yourself expression of musical community — not a bad theme for a music director’s debut.
Freight & Salvage will receive its Northeast premiere by A Far Cry at Jordan Hall in Boston on Dec. 18. The Knights will perform it during their 2016-17 season.
Jacobsen leads the Philharmonic with the Orlando Ballet in performances of Giselle Oct. 30-Nov. 1. He conducts five more programs with the orchestra over the rest of the season, including several at Plaza Live Theatre, a rock venue recently purchased by the orchestra where it gives smaller, sometimes offbeat performances. In April, Jacobsen will conduct a staging of The Magic Flute there.
John Fleming writes for Opera News, Musical America, Symphony and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic of the Tampa Bay Times.