Florida Orchestra Tunes Up Season At Soccer Pitch

With tent, loudspeakers and jumbo video, the Orlando Philharmonic opened its season on the green of the new 25,500-seat Exploria Stadium, built for soccer. Photos: Alex Sturgill

ORLANDO, Fla. – To open its 2020-21 season, the Orlando Philharmonic didn’t keep the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic from letting it find a way to go big and loud: On Sept. 26, opening night took place at the 25,500-seat Exploria Stadium for soccer. With soloist Simone Porter playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and a reduced, amplified – and socially distanced – orchestra perched on the soccer pitch, the concert was an encouraging start to the season.  

The Philharmonic made a bold decision when it was announced that the opening of the long-overdue Steinmetz Hall had been postponed until 2021, and that the Bob Carr Theater, where the orchestra has presented its main classical programs for more than 20 years, was declared unsafe under public health regulations.

That’s his game face under the mask: Music director Eric Jacobsen led the Orlando Philharmonic before an audience of very socially distanced music lovers.

Through its partnership with Exploria Stadium, the Philharmonic distinguished itself among orchestras in Florida on how to open the season amid a pandemic that has hit the state hard. The Jacksonville Symphony opened the same night at a socially distanced Jacoby Symphony Hall, with a shortened program that also included the Mendelssohn concerto and soloist James Ehnes.

Pushing its opening to late October, the Florida Orchestra in the Tampa Bay area is choosing to play for a reduced audience at Mahaffey Theater with a free live stream; on the other side of the state, Miami Beach’s New World Symphony is opening the season on Oct. 17 with pre-recorded archival performances from its trademark Wallcasts at the Dezerland Park drive-in movie theater.

In November, the Sarasota Orchestra plans to begin presenting ensembles of no more than 15 musicians at Holley Hall, with in-person audiences limited to 20 percent of capacity and streaming available. The Naples Philharmonic has canceled its masterworks series at least through Jan. 31, 2021, though it is presenting a chamber music series at Hayes Hall for an audience of about 85, beginning Oct. 11.

Applause all around for winging it under the tent: Violin soloist Simone Porter, left, concertmaster Rimma Bergeron-Langlois and music director Eric Jacobsen.

But back to downtown Orlando and the soccer field: With plenty of space for social distancing, a face-masked audience limited to 2,000 turned out for the first live performance of the Philharmonic since the coronavirus struck. Under a tent and facing the west side of the stadium, the orchestra was amplified via five sets of speakers, which made for a very loud night.

The moment music director Eric Jacobsen, wearing a purple Orlando City Soccer jersey, took to the stage to open with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one could feel the boost of the bass resonating across the field. Though not without their charms, two introductory orchestral jazz pieces by Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin served as appetizers with which to acclimate and attune the ear to amplified sound’s inevitable flattening of the peaks and valleys of orchestral music.

A highlight of the performance was the live feed on the Jumbotron screen on the southeast corner of the field, showing close-ups of the musicians, most of whom couldn’t be seen from the bleachers because of the tent they were in. It was moving to see the return of live music by the Philharmonic, despite the occasional intrusion of train or motorcycle noises and the 84-degree heat.

The performances of the Mendelssohn concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony were solid and earnest, though one had to strain to overcome the obstacles inherent from amplification. The sound was louder than necessary, with the bass register amped up noticeably, which tended to create a rumble in passages that are naturally louder. Nevertheless, the playing still had fine qualities during quieter moments.

Simone Porter’s Mendelssohn Concerto battled a trickster wind and mic distortion.

Simone Porter, an Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient, gave a precise reading of the Mendelssohn. Unfortunately, her violin – seemingly amplified by an earpiece microphone – came through the speakers as if heard from under a dampening blanket, which made it hard to get a reliable feel for her musicality and lyricism. The first-movement cadenza was nearly ruined by winds that were picked up by the mic. I was still able to appreciate her performance, particularly in the second movement, in which she adorned her bowing with a warm vibrato at the end of phrases.  

Because of the amplification, I had to make adjustments in my listening to approximate the essence of the performance, rendered as monochromatic in dynamics. But once past this, I could appreciate sporadic moments of clarity, such as the penetrating brass call that opens the Tchaikovsky, as well as the mournfulness of the bassoon (Diane Bishop) later in the first movement, answered by the clarinet (Nikolay Blagov), and in turn echoed by the oboe (Jamie Strefeler).

The strings – reduced to 27 – were well equalized, despite the overall loudness. The last few bars of the first movement, with high tremolo strings supported by timpani, caught my attention. In the second movement, the solo oboe came though with an eerie sound that gave it a different feeling – like a bird call across a distance where you can’t easily spot the source of the sound. It was enthralling. In passages of sparer orchestration – such as the intimate third movement with interplay between pizzicato strings and flutes and piccolo – one could almost savor the performance behind the speakers. Though Jacobsen brought out the best of the ensemble throughout the evening, the concert made for a mixed affair, but a memorable one.