ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Florida Orchestra celebrated its 50th anniversary the weekend of Feb. 23 with a Florida-themed world premiere. For the occasion, music director Michael Francis set his sights on homegrown talent, commissioning Triptych by Tampa native Michael Ippolito. Francis led performances at St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater and one at Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall.
At roughly 25 minutes, Triptych is a feat in structure and thoughtful, large-scale orchestration. It is a celebration of Florida as an “artistic entity,” as Francis said in a pre-concert talk, a piece that takes its ideas not from the state’s tourist fare but from its natural landscapes and climate. Ippolito made the Florida connection via inspiration by literary works of Henry David Thoreau (conjuring swamps), Shakespeare (thunderstorms), and Wallace Stevens (beaches), resulting in a tripartite score that can still stand on its own, minus the extra-musical references.
Marked “Misterioso” in the score, “Cypress Cathedral,” inspired by a lecture by Thoreau, opens with a quiet chromatic melody for clarinet and subtle flute. Strings respond with similar gestures, playing with a cold articulation that eschews vibrato. By the time the brass joins in, the structure can be perceived as a series of ghost-like reiterations and variations of the opening phrases. There is constant ebb and flow, and a plangent, yet controlled, crash of sound. The movement is also inspired by Clyde Butcher’s black-and-white photography of the Florida wilderness.
A loud ascending chirp on two breathy piccolos and flute opens the centerpiece movement, “On the Curl’d Clouds,” after Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Dings from the triangle and sneaky violin glissandos create a surreal, frolicsome mood – the composer had in mind Ariel, the play’s trickster sprite. An insistent celesta in uneven rhythm carries forward the quick pace, as menacing timpani rolls with brass interjections depict the whorl of ominous clouds. There is charming flute work and a solo clarinet with trills, both evocative of something otherworldly. Piccolos chime in with rough accents, over a swirling harp, followed by strings playing close to the bridge to produce a pale tone. As the momentum rises, there is a cluster in the lowest register of the piano, and the sudden crash of a thunder sheet – perhaps the most theatrical among Ippolito’s adroit orchestral maneuvers.
The finale, “Barque of Phosphor,” takes inspiration from Florida snowbird Wallace Stevens. In “Fabliau of Florida,” the poet writes of a “Barque of phosphor / On the palmy beach” that sails off into a type of celestial voyage. Marked “floating” in the score, the movement opens with a high, delicate flute solo, followed by oboe over soft violins. There is a descending theme on the high woodwinds that recurs throughout.
A highlight is a solo violin passage (played by concertmaster Jeffrey Multer) that plumbs the lower register. Murmurings from the strings and woodwinds meditate on the journey, until low woodwinds come forth with a theme of their own. Material that seems familiar by this point returns in waves, expressed in a short-long two-note brass motif. There are subtle tempo changes, including a specific reference in the score to the timeless flow of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie. Piano and harp presage a final statement by the cellos, as if the journey has taken us to some ineffable, preternatural realm. Eerie pizzicato scrapings on the violins conjure the remains of the rich imagery that has eddied, transmogrified, and finally subsided over the length of the score.
Ippolito, 33, assistant professor of composition at Texas State University, grew up in the Tampa Bay area playing cello and piano; as a teenager he was a member of the Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra and received coaching from Florida Orchestra musicians. When he was 18, the orchestra premiered his Waltz at the University of South Florida’s Composer Showcase. The influence of his Juilliard professor John Corigliano can be perceived in Triptych, particularly in Ippolito’s painstaking sense of structure.
This celebratory program was rounded out with more conventional fare: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (New World) and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, featuring Cuban pianist Aldo López-Gavilán.
Even though Francis pushed for loudness in much of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, there was still plenty of contrast achieved by poignant crescendos in the strings. The development section of the first movement was particularly well crafted. With an expressive left hand, the conductor seemed to shape the form of the famous English horn solo (played by Jeffrey Stephenson) in the second movement, keeping the tempo from falling into a drag. He shaped Dvořák’s melodies into a unified stream, though in thicker-textured passages he tended to emphasize a particular melody for clarity.
In Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody, López-Gavilán blended better with the orchestra in the slower episodes; his thunderous keyboard strokes tended to overpower the woodwinds in other moments. But with multiple piano styles at his command, López-Gavilán added a singsong intonation to his interpretation, easing dreamily into the poignant 18th variation.
Now in his third season with the Florida Orchestra, Francis has raised the organization’s profile through extensive community engagement projects. Though his programming has gravitated toward conservative masterworks, the ongoing Florida Fanfare Project consists of five commissions from Florida composers in celebration of the 50th anniversary. Next on the docket is Stetson University faculty member Manuel de Murga’s Fanfare for Three Cities, on May 4-6. For more information, go here.