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Orchestra passing the baton and the hat

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 30, 2003

For the Florida Orchestra, it is the best of times, and it is the worst of times.

It is the best of times because the orchestra is completing a laborious transition of leadership on the podium. On Thursday, Susan Haig will be named as associate conductor to succeed Thomas Wilkins, who will literally pass the baton to her in a morning coffee concert at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater.

Paired with the hiring of Stefan Sanderling as music director, succeeding Jahja Ling, Haig's appointment gives the orchestra as promising a conducting staff as any in the country. With both assuming their posts this summer, the 2003-04 season could start a period of exciting artistic growth.

But will there be an orchestra for Sanderling and Haig to lead?

This is the worst of times for symphony orchestras around the country, with even well-established ones in Rochester, N.Y.; Louisville, Ky.; Baltimore and other cities in survival mode. Musicians' labor contracts have been cut, concerts have been canceled, last-ditch fundraising drives have been mounted.

The latest emergency is in South Florida, where the Florida Philharmonic announced that if it didn't raise $20-million by Friday, it would declare bankruptcy.

Last year, the Florida Orchestra bucked the downward trend by posting a small surplus, but it would be surprising if this historically shaky institution did not have financial problems in the current climate.

And sure enough, at concerts earlier this month, executive director Leonard Stone told audiences that a campaign is under way in which anonymous donors would match up to $500,000 in contributions made to the orchestra by the end of June, a potential total of $1-million. Stone said the orchestra needs the money to balance its budget.

Details of this campaign are unclear, because the only information so far has come from Stone's onstage remarks, but it's not hard to figure that the orchestra might be facing a deficit of up to $1-million, a staggering amount on a budget of about $8-million. There have been talks between management and musicians in which a pay freeze and reduction in the size of the orchestra were discussed, but that sort of solution could backfire.

Sanderling, who has bought a house in the Bahama Shores neighborhood of St. Petersburg, would be within his rights to walk away from the job if he felt the orchestra had been decimated by deep cuts.

Haig looks like a catch for the orchestra. She was the first choice from the field of five conductors who appeared this season as candidates to follow Wilkins, now associate conductor of the Detroit Symphony. Last season, the orchestra auditioned another group of conductors, but none worked out.

In January, leading a coffee concert at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center that I attended, Haig drew an assured performance in a program of nature-themed music, and she was comfortable making comments before each piece.

She received her bachelor's degree from Princeton in 1976 and went on to earn master's and doctoral degrees in piano and conducting from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She was a pianist, coach and assistant conductor with the New York City Opera and other opera companies before embarking on an orchestral conducting career in Canada, first as resident conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic, then artistic director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra in Ontario.

In November, Haig stepped down as music director of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra after less than a year in the job. She and the board cited philosophical differences in programming, spending and expanding as reasons for the split.

For the last three years, ever since Ling announced he was leaving, the Florida Orchestra has been in limbo. Ling was focused on his own job search, which landed him the San Diego Symphony music directorship a few weeks ago, and Wilkins divided his time between Tampa Bay and Detroit. Programming was essentially left to management, which loaded up on the war horses supposedly popular with audiences.

Sanderling and Haig are both adventurous, sophisticated musicians. They have the talent to raise the profile of the orchestra and make it relevant to a community starved for a homegrown performing-arts organization of stature and excellence. Let's hope they get the chance.

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