Violin Concerto Weaves Classic Strands: Fugue, Passacaglia, ‘Odyssey’

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Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer was the soloist in the world premiere of Michael Ippolito’s Violin Concerto, performed by the Florida Orchestra, music director Michael Francis conducting. (JM Lennon)

TAMPA — It’s heartening to see an orchestra commission a major piece from a hometown composer who basically grew up at their feet. The ensemble is Tampa Bay’s Florida Orchestra, the composer Michael Ippolito, whose sizzling new Violin Concerto received its world premiere the weekend of Dec. 2-4 in Tampa and St. Petersburg. The piece was written for the orchestra’s concertmaster, Jeffrey Multer.

The relationship between the Florida Orchestra and the Tampa-born Ippolito, 37, goes way back: In middle school, he played cello with the Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra, participating in side-by-side performances with musicians from the Florida Orchestra; in 2003, the group premiered the teenage composer’s Waltz; and last year the orchestra opened its season with the premiere of his brief a la fenestra. I first heard Ippolito’s music in 2018, when the Florida Orchestra premiered the larger-scaled, Florida-themed Triptych, commissioned to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary. I’ve since been fascinated by Songlines, a 2017 album of Ippolito’s string quartets, performed by the Attacca Quartet.

Composer Michael Ippolito, a Tampa native, grew up attending Florida Orchestra concerts. He played cello in side-by-side performances with the orchestra’s musicians. The orchestra has premiered three of his works.

Some of the lyricism from his superb String Quartet No. 3, and a lot of the tension from the rest of the album, surfaces in the new Violin Concerto — a 25-minute orchestral maelstrom for double woodwinds, amped-up brass, 13 percussion instruments (including timpani), strings, and an virtuosic part for the soloist. Like Triptych and a la fenestra, the new piece was conducted by Michael Francis, music director of the Florida Orchestra since 2014.

The two-movement concerto was inspired by classic heroic narratives, notably The Odyssey, but from a revisionist angle that reconsiders the story from the perspective of secondary characters. (In his program notes, he cites Madeline Miller’s novels The Song of Achilles and Circe.) While the first movement, “Rhapsodos (song-stitcher),” sticks to the classic soloist-as-hero-pitted-against-orchestra model, the second, “Moirai (spin-measure-cut),” conjures the Greek Fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos — sisters who, respectively, “spin the thread of life,” “measure each person’s allotment,” and “cut the thread at the end of life.”

If too close a reading might get in the way of the enjoyment of the piece as pure music, suffice to say that in “Moirai,” Ippolito employs classic forms like the passacaglia and fugue — to show how things are “locked into fate,” as he commented from the stage of the Straz Center’s Ferguson Hall.

Ippolito’s harmonies spring from the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, grouped closely at the beginning of “Rhapsodos” and played by vibraphone, harp, and strings, soon joined by the ornery soloist. Most of the material consists of implied melodies and brash statements that alternate between pugilistic extravagance, artificial effusion, and hearty lyricism. Ippolito is not a melodist but a sculptor; his concerto is about shaping the large orchestral forces at work into energetic bursts that are best experienced moment by moment. The daunting chromaticism can keep the violin’s inherent lyricism at bay, but the reward is in the concerto’s piecemeal construction as it unspools in real time.

Multer, who was appointed concertmaster of the orchestra in 2006 and performed the solo violin part in Triptych, has long played a violin on loan from John Corigliano, Ippolito’s composition teacher at The Juilliard School and a major influence. With razor-sharp precision, Multer was a warm and incisive soloist. Cocking his eyebrows as he glanced down at his music stand, he took on a plucky attitude negotiating the score’s long chains of arpeggiated figures and three cadenzas; the motoric first one, late into the first movement, is marked “feroce.”

“Moirai” opens with another cadenza, this time with bowing that alternates between over the bridge and close to the fingerboard, creating subtle variations in timbre. There is a moment of great interplay between an oboe (Russell Hoffman) and the soloist in which the two instruments gradually blend in. The detail is easy to miss. (Besides, you couldn’t see any of the winds behind the strings from the 10th row, where I sat.) To set the mood for the third cadenza, the violins and violas tap and strike the strings with the wood of the bow. After an engulfing fugue that stretches the texture further, the concerto ends with an emphatic single chord for low woodwinds, brass, strings, timpani, and slapstick. Or, if you care to weave in the Greek-mythology program, the subversive antihero dies violently when his thread of life is suddenly snipped by a remorseless Atropos.

Michael Francis’ program included Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and ‘Elegy’ by Welsh composer Grace Williams.

To complement the concerto, Francis picked Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. In remarks from the stage, he drew a tenuous connection between Ippolito’s three Fates and the fate motif from the opening of the Tchaikovsky (never mind Beethoven’s Fifth, though he didn’t fail to mention it). There was lucid ensemble work and solo woodwinds in his Tchaikovsky, though the brass tended to lie low in the mix — likely owing to Ferguson’s acoustics more than to the performance. Francis mirrored the orchestra — or perhaps vice versa — with wide-armed gestures and knee flexions; by the time the trumpets called out the fate motif at the end of the first movement, he and the orchestra had surveyed the score’s full panoply of peaks and valleys.

But there was a tendency to blare, especially in the first and fourth movements — the strategy for the climactic points seemingly to play as loud as possible. That roughened the otherwise pristine string work, untarnished in the concert-opening Elegy for strings by the early-20th-century Welsh composer Grace Williams — then a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams, now all but forgotten.

Let’s hope that the same, uh, fate, won’t befall Ippolito or his new Violin Concerto; when an orchestra commissions a composer that isn’t already well-established, the problem is that the new work might be performed a few times in its initial run but then hardly ever brought back or programmed elsewhere. As far as I know, no other orchestra in Florida has picked up Triptych, even though it’s a tribute to the state. Until then, perhaps the mark of an orchestra’s true devotion to a homegrown composer will prove to be not more commissions but more performances over the years. However many Lachesis may allot.