Ludwig van Beethoven has been dead for nearly 200 years, but dust doesn’t settle on his grave. He made sure it wouldn’t.
Not after the Ninth. It juts skyward like a jagged peak, casting a shadow on everything around it. It rattled composers for the whole of the 19th century, shifting the paradigm of art toward the infinity of personal expression. Nobody imposed his will like Beethoven, and nobody wrote anything like his Ninth Symphony.
No wonder it continues to sell at the box office, and no wonder The Florida Orchestra brings it back again, this time to open its 2013-14 season. Joined by the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay this weekend, the orchestra offers three performances of Beethoven’s grand opus, along with Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.’’ The group hopes to win over new listeners while satisfying those who never tire of Beethoven.
“It’s a special thing, no matter how many times you perform it or hear it,’’ says Evan Rogister, guest conductor for the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater concerts. “It still gives you goose bumps every time. It’s definitely not what I would call a regular event.’’
Beethoven’s Ninth remains a cornerstone of the symphonic canon and is arguably the single-most influential musical creation of all time. It celebrates a theme of universal brotherhood (and sisterhood) through music so visceral it threatens to tear itself from the page.
Although cast in four movements, the Ninth is best known to millions through the famous “Ode to Joy’’ hymn of praise of the finale. Here — and for the first time ever in a symphony — Beethoven introduces the human voice. Having exhausted what he considered to be the instrumental possibilities of the genre, he turned to the voice to express his most profound utterance as a symphonic composer.
“The popular conception of the Ninth is what most people hear in movies or on television, which is the excerpted ‘Ode to Joy’ melody,’’ Rogister says. “But when you get to know the whole symphony, it’s a very different experience.’’
From its inception, that experience struck like a thunderbolt. It reduced the composer Richard Wagner to a quivering bowl of jelly. Johannes Brahms tried to outrun it, but fell to his knees in reverence in his own First Symphony. Gustav Mahler paid homage by composing vocal symphonies of epic length and complexity. For a century after the work’s premiere in 1824, no major composer broke the barrier of writing more than nine symphonies.
“The Ninth Symphony came down like an avalanche,” writes Lewis Lockwood in his book “Beethoven: The Music and the Life.’’ “No symphonist after Beethoven could avoid its impact, and many who were not symphonic composers were spellbound by it.’’
Today, the music still holds listeners spellbound, especially when 250 musicians deliver its full impact in a live performance. This is what The Florida Orchestra hopes for this weekend, using the Ninth as a catalyst to generate interest deeper into the season.
But isn’t opening the season with the Ninth anti-climactic? Traditionally, orchestras like to position the work around the holidays or at the end of a long season. Instead, by kicking things off with the Ninth, the orchestra hopes to grab listeners early on and hold them.
Holding them requires innovative programming. For its 2013-14 season, the orchestra offers a potent balance of war horses and more adventurous fare in its Masterworks series. Then, it taps the potential for new audiences in its pops and coffee concerts, rock arrangements for orchestra, music from silent films, Saturday family matinees, and — get this — adaptations from popular video games.
So, expect to see more young faces at concerts this year, says Florida Orchestra president and CEO Michael Pastreich.
“We have an extraordinary variety of music this season,’’ he says from the group’s offices in downtown St. Petersburg. “We have a much broader palette now. It’s because of our board’s willingness to experiment.’’
Part of the experiment happens on the podium. After music director Stefan Sanderling stepped down last season, the orchestra had to deal with a gaping artistic hole at its epicenter. To help fill the void, no less than a dozen guest conductors will make appearances. They will do their best to make an impression with management, musicians, and audiences. The few who survive the audition will form part of a short list, with an invitation to come back and delve deeper.
“Our season is designed with a backdrop of really testing different conductors in different repertoire,’’ Pastreich says. “But there’s no timeline on this. You invite guest conductors to appear and you look to see how they gel with the orchestra. If they do, you bring them back. So it could be two or three years before we find a replacement’’ for Sanderling.
The 12 conductors will tackle a wide variety of repertoire: Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra’’ (popularized in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”); Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Piano Concerto No. 1 and “Pathetique’’ Symphony; Elgar’s Cello Concerto; and Brahms’s Second Symphony. Edgier fare includes Tan Dun’s “Water Concerto’’; Takemitsu’s “Toward the Sea II’’; Bartok’s First Piano Concerto; and John Adams’ “Chamber Symphony.’’
Not all audiences crave the heavy stuff. So, the lighter Pops, Coffee and Rock programs include such distractions as the gymnastic “Cirque de la Symphonie’’; music from the James Bond movies; an evening of Rodgers & Hammerstein; a tribute to Benny Goodman; a “Stars & Stripes Hit Parade’’; music of the Eagles, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles; a Tampa festival celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month; and a salute to the Celtic sounds of Ireland.
Like many orchestras around the country, the Bay area group must continue to find new ways of reaching listeners. The balance means honoring the traditional classics, while at the same time presenting a crossover of music that a few decades ago would be unthinkable to print in a playbill. Is the formula a risk? More important, is it working?
“Well, we’ve developed into one of the most vibrant orchestras in country,’’ Pastreich says in response. “We’ve grown by 27 percent in paid attendance through the recession, and our endowment has grown from $7 million to $16 million. I think what’s happening is that we’ve become a more dynamic organization by focusing on being a strong servant to our community.’’
THE FLORIDA ORCHESTRA
With the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay
What: Opening of the 2013-14 season, featuring Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms’’
When/Where: 8 tonight, Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa; 8 p.m. Saturday, Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S., St. Petersburg; 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater
Tickets: $14 to $45; for information call (727) 892-3337 or visit www.floridaorchestra.org