No Prima Donna He

Brainy, radiant Stefan Sanderling strikes a simple chord

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Stefan Sanderling radiates intelligence. As he talks about classical music and especially about the forces that drove a composer to write this piece or that, his face becomes animated, he reels off facts and theories, and his German-accented voice takes on the emphasis of a true believer. But don't think that his dedication makes Sanderling hard to relate to. No, the new music director of the Florida Orchestra puts on no airs, makes no attempt to seem the out-of-reach maestro. Only 39 years old but looking younger, he could still pass for a likable graduate student, passionate about music but also up for a game of touch football and a black-and-white movie on late-night TV. So he's conducted major orchestras across the globe; you'd never guess it from his earnest, casual style. Meeting him for the first time, you'd only assume he was some type of intellectual; and beyond that you might add easy to talk to. Pleasant to listen to.

I recently sat down with Sanderling at the office of the Florida Orchestra and asked him to guide me through the coming Masterworks Concerts that he'll be conducting. We started by talking about the Oct. 11 and 12 presentations of Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. About the Beethoven, he says, "It's a grandiose piece. It's a proud piece. It doesn't want to show what you can do with the violin; it shows you what can you do with a wonderful melody." The Bartok on the other hand is "some of the saddest music of the 20th century." Bartok, when he wrote it, was a Hungarian exile living in the United States, and longing for his home. The piece was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky when Bartok was in financial need, and "no one could have expected that Bartok would write one of the major pieces of this century."

Sanderling's next appearances are Nov. 14-16, when he'll be conducting Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Mozart's Requiem. About the Stravinsky, he says, "It's very efficient. ... It's the old Latin text and it's a bow to eternity." The Requiem, Sanderling points out, was left unfinished at Mozart's death, and the composer never knew that it had been commissioned by an aristocrat who planned to take the credit for it. "We will do a very special version which has never been done here, where an American composer and pianist, Robert Levin, added an 'amen.' ... We just know that Mozart probably would have added this. Exactly the same amen? No, we don't know. But something needed to be added."

Sanderling's first Bay area concert of 2004 will take place Feb. 13-15 and will feature Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. The conductor thinks the work can be better understood if one knows that the composer dedicated it to "my best friend" — a woman Tchaikovsky had never met. "So how lonely must someone be whose best friend is someone he never met? I think this describes the symphony. Desperate, brilliant, great, loud piece. But a very intimate statement, a statement about ... what is wrong here in this world." Next, on Feb. 27-29, the main event is Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, which Sanderling calls "one of the other major pieces of this century." The symphony, says Sanderling, is about Stalin's reign of terror in Russia, "about what was done with a once-marvelous idea: the utopia of 'all people are equal' ... and what is [Shostakovich's] fear for what's going to be in the future. We know now that whatever his fear was, it became twice as bad as he thought. Personally, for the country, for this utopia."

There's more Beethoven in the schedule on March 18-21, when Sanderling conducts the master's Symphony No. 4. "It's a wonderful spring symphony," says the conductor. "Everything is coming to life. It's energy, it's surprises, one surprise after the other ... It's like the Sacre du Printemps, but a hundred years earlier." Sanderling's also excited to premiere, in the same program, Beethoven's recently discovered Konzertsatz for Violin and Chamber Orchestra; it may be the first movement, he says, of a second Violin Concerto. After Beethoven comes Brahms — the Piano Concerto No. 2 on March 27-29. The concerto, says Sanderling, "is just one big symphony with piano. It's one of the deepest piano concertos I know. Everything is in it: the passion, the lyric, the wise man. ... It doesn't have to be loud to be impressive."

A popular favorite follows on April 16-18, when Dvorak's New World Symphony will resound through the concert hall. "Everyone loves it, everyone knows it, and people are not wrong to love it and to know it. It is a wonderful piece, a very emotional piece. Dvorak felt so homesick, he had to go home, you know. It is from the New World, but it's all about the Old World."

Sanderling's last concerts of the season, May 27-29, will bring us Mahler's Symphony No. 5, which he calls "maybe the most popular Mahler symphony, maybe together with 1. It has everything in it: It's a very dramatic beginning and a very joyful ending. And in between it's very romantic. ... It's the joy of making music, the joy of hearing sounds, the joy of describing nature, nature in Austria in the mountains, where he composed it."

Dramatic beginnings: That might describe Sanderling's first appearance last month with Stravinsky's Firebird. And joyful endings: Shall we hope for a Florida Orchestra without a deficit, musicians who don't have to take any more pay cuts, and a conductor — Stefan Sanderling — who's sure that the community appreciates him?

We're fortunate to have Sanderling. Now we have to support his — our — orchestra.

Then we too can revel in "the joy of making music."

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

BEST DANCE EVENTSubtexture, Moving Current

In its January, 2003 concert, the indispensable dance collective Moving Current brought the work of six different choreographers to the University of South Florida. The evening began with Andy Noble's "Static," an ingenious creation in which soloist Dionne Sparkman Noble danced with a video projection of herself, suggesting a dialogue within a single psyche. Next came Nancy Feagans Smith's "Conveyance," inspired by a letter from a sailor on a doomed Russian submarine and featuring dancers Erin Cardinal, Kelley McGill, Allison Pople and Vicki Somoya. "Mahalo," by Michael Foley, brought a lighthearted Hawaiian duet to the stage. And Cardinal's "Shrine," danced to music by Vas, brought us five silk-clothed dancers and free-flowing movement. Choreographer Cynthia Hennessy wrapped her dancers in long pieces of fabric for "Strata," a work about bodily tension and its effects; and Somoya's duet "Scar Tissue" explored her parents' divorce. Finally, Andy Noble was back with "Kung Fu Fungus," a comic work in which four female kung fu fighters entered a bizarre combat with a fast-multiplying, pesky fungus. Eclectic, unpredictable, intrepid and always innovative, Moving Current is a local treasure. In Subtexture that treasure gleamed.

BEST CHOREOGRAPHERMichael Foley

Foley's been a Tampa resident for only about a year, but his coming here is some of the best dance news we've had in a long while. He's a choreographer with real range: His dance on the Pandora theme (in USF Dance's spring concert) was darkly beautiful, employing ancient-looking lanterns and suggesting a world of profound experimentation; while his "Mahalo," in Moving Current's January show, was light and funny, using modified hula gestures, pantomiming the blooming of big flowers, and taking us along for a refreshing Hawaiian drink at the Tiki bar. Foley's work is athletic and detailed, and he has a wonderful eye for the subtle, meaningful gesture. He comes to Tampa — where he's now a USF professor — after residencies in New York and Ireland, as well as a number of other places around the world. When a choreographer of this quality decides to settle in Tampa, culture-lovers should take note. Look for Foley's work in concerts to come.

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