‘1812 Overture’ cannon blasts: How do they do that?

Brace yourself for the boom of cannons, when The Florida Orchestra lights the fuse on Tchaikovsky’s rousing and riotous fanfare, the 1812 Overture.

We’ve all heard snippets over the years, cascading on television commercials, cartoons and Fourth of July celebrations. But part of what makes the Oct. 27-29 performances special is the length: Instead of playing the abbreviated version, the orchestra will present the complete score, bringing out nuances normally missed. This makes it more of a symphonic experience, says Music Director Michael Francis.

“A shortened version of 1812 has become a favorite of pop programs,’’ he said. “But we’ll re-examine this classic in its full glory for what it really is, as opposed to what it’s become.’’

Going full blast for 1812 can present special problems for performers. The Florida Orchestra has used miniature cannons over the years during outdoor parks concerts, where blasts of gunpowder, sound and smoke get rounds of applause. But they can’t be fired indoors.

Back in the 1970s, to recreate mortar bursts during performances at McKay Auditorium in Tampa, a stagehand would fire blanks from a gun into a barrel half-filled with sand. What could possibly go wrong? Fantastic stories – a bit hazy with time – have been passed down through the percussion section involving eardrum-splitting blasts into empty barrels, randomly fired blanks not at all in time with the music and general mayhem caused by heavy smoke and noise that cleared the stage during rehearsal. The orchestra called a cease fire.

This time the much-anticipated series of 16 cannon shots will be much more civilized – and high tech.

“We will be using recorded samples of cannons that will be triggered by our percussion section and played through the house speakers,’’ said Edward Parsons, the orchestra’s general manager.

The sampled sounds of real cannons are programmed into an electronic drum pad. “The pad has six separate striking areas, and is touch sensitive, so if I strike it harder, the cannon report is louder,” said John Shaw, principal percussionist. “I’ll be striking two cannon sounds – two separate pads — at once for even more depth.”

The music’s firepower symbolizes the more than 1,000 cannons the French army used during its invasion of Moscow at the Battle of Borodino in 1812. While all this noise is enough to wake the dead – and perhaps a patron or two – Tchaikovsky’s 16-minute score contains moments of refinement. Like his other famous overture, Romeo and Juliet, the music depicts a struggle between two forces: in one case, the French and Russian armies; in the other, the Montagues and Capulets.

Still, the composer didn’t think too highly of the work, dismissing it as “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit.’’ Parsons disagrees: “It’s a great piece of music that deserves placement on a Masterworks program. It has stood the test of time and really is a wonderful piece with beautiful, tender moments, especially the opening chorale.’’

The upcoming program – performed in Tampa and St. Petersburg — balances the 1812 with another, albeit seldom-heard Tchaikovsky work, the Symphony No. 2, called the Little Russian. Two more pieces flesh out the program: the world premiere of Horizon Gravy by Tampa composer Paul Reller, and Witold Lutoslawski’s searing Concerto for Orchestra. The common point between Tchaikovsky, a Russian, and Lutoslawski, a Pole, is their use of simple folk tunes.

Tchaikovsky wrote his Symphony No. 2 after a visit to Ukraine, then known as “Little Russia,’’ and wove indigenous folk songs into his score. Lutoslawski did the same with his Concerto, made up of a patchwork of Polish folk tunes. From these humble nuggets, both composers crafted impressive works of art that can be wickedly difficult to play.

“The Lutoslawski in particular was written as a showcase for orchestra, hence Concerto for Orchestra,‘’ Parsons said. “The virtuosity of the players is on full display. Tampa Bay is fortunate to have an orchestra of players with world-class talent and we thought it important to really show off what they can do in our 50th anniversary season.’’

If you go

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture

Michael Francis, conductor

Reller: Horizon Gravy
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2, “Little Russian”
Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra
Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture

Fri, Oct 27, 8 pm, Straz Center, Ferguson Hall
Sat, Oct 28, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater
Sun, Oct 29, 2 pm, Mahaffey Theater – Matinee

Tickets: $15, $30, $45
Free tickets for kids and teens available in advance, with adult ticket purchase.

Click to buy tickets

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