Flawed work enchanting in musicians' hands
By JOHN FLEMING
Published April 10, 2006
CLEARWATER - Sail on, sailor. That, in essence, is the message of Vaughan Williams' remarkable Sea Symphony , given a rollicking performance Sunday night by the Florida Orchestra and Master Chorale of Tampa Bay at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Williams' first symphony (he composed nine in all) is a flawed, even preposterous work, with a mystical-philosophical text by Walt Whitman that doesn't shy from comparing life to a sea voyage. But it is still irresistible, the kind of work you fall in love with as a young person. Full of energy and grandeur and emotion, it's a young person's idea of what a symphony ought to be.
Performances of the Sea Symphony are somewhat rare outside Williams' homeland of Great Britain. Music director Stefan Sanderling was conducting it for the first time over the weekend, and it was also a premiere for the orchestra and chorus, prepared by its artistic director, Richard Zielinski. Soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme and baritone Leon Williams were the magnificent soloists.
The Master Chorale made its presence known right away with a glorious blast, "Behold, the sea itself," establishing a sturdy foundation for the hourlong symphony. The chorus' finest moment came in The Waves , an exciting evocation of Whitman's poetry on the sea and ships. That movement also has a noble brass theme summoning images of England as a sea power.
Nothing quite prepares you for the mind-blowing finale, The Explorers , with verse that ranges from Adam and Eve to "the vastnesses of Space" to time and space and death. Chandler-Eteme and Williams had a sublime duet on the line "Caroling free, singing our song of God." Both soloists had the uncanny ability to be heard above and through the orchestra and chorus with great clarity and expressiveness.
While the soloists, chorus and orchestra brass and percussion dominated the symphony, there was always a restless undercurrent, almost subliminal, of strings and winds that created the feeling of the ocean.
The program opened with Beethoven's Symphony No. 1, which neatly encapsulates the turning point from the classical to the romantic era. The first two movements have a formal quality, with regular foursquare rhythms; they basically amount to an homage to Haydn. But 15 minutes into the work, tempos become unpredictable, and a feeling of tension and release permeates the sound. For an alert listener at the Vienna premiere in 1800, it must have been a thrilling sign of great things to come.REVIEW
The Florida Orchestra and Master Chorale of Tampa Bay repeat their program at 7:30 tonight at Morsani Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $15.50-$50.50. (813) 286-2403 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286; floridaorchestra.org.