When The Florida Orchestra's season comes to a close in six months and we look back on those stick-to-the-ribs highlights, this weekend's program will stand out as a keeper.
The all-American fare seems harmless enough on paper, but seeing and hearing John Corigliano's Piano Concerto unfold - or does it explode? - up close and personal is worth more than the price of admission.
In fact, the folks attending "Phantom of the Opera" next door at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center missed the real action Friday night, because soloist William Wolfram didn't just convince most of his Ferguson Hall audience, he conquered them.
Oh, sure, this was a so-called "modern" work, with some atonal dissonance sprinkled over stark octaves and irregular rhythms - guaranteed to rankle traditionalists. But Corigliano also wrote an old-fashioned modern concerto, one that grabs the emotions while impressing with its steely virtuosity.
A big man with power to spare, Wolfram attacked his half-ton Steinway early on, capturing the frenetic essence of the first movement's duo cadenzas before cradling in his hands moments of quiet lyricism.
Composed in 1967, the concerto is a rollicking showpiece: dramatic, theatrical, over-the-top and prickly enough to keep listeners guessing.
Wolfram and the orchestra molded its four movements with assurance under the baton of guest conductor Edwin Outwater, and the team did a nice job of balancing savagery and elegance throughout.
Samuel Barber's "Second Essay" opened the night, a pleasant diversion from his ubiquitous "Adagio for Strings" and a piece that grows - with impressive weight - out of three simple themes. After the woodwinds juggled the melodies as a fugue, the entire ensemble wove its textures into a formidable climax.
Outwater devoted the second half to that watershed of American music, Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," played with effortless transparency albeit some unpolished violins at the onset.
The musicians created a landscape of spacious and agreeable harmonies, delicate suspensions, spare textures and a fine sense for light and shade - especially in the famed "Shaker Hymn." Animating every detail at the podium, Outwater seemed not so much to be conducting the piece as riding a horse.
Performances continue tonight at 8 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.