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Stage: Follow the money trail

The bay area scene was hurt financially and artistically by finally having to watch the bottom line. But as always, quality performances rose above the fray.

Published December 25, 2003

There is a time lag in the performing arts, which tend to be locked into plans and programming well in advance. As a result, the recession of the past few years caught up with the Tampa Bay area's classical music, theater and dance in 2003, just when the economy started to give signs of picking up.

Exhibit A: Two weeks before Stefan Sanderling conducted his first concert as music director of the Florida Orchestra, it was announced that musicians had to accept a deep pay cut in order to keep playing. Welcome to Tampa Bay, maestro.

The orchestra's retrenchment was not the only bad news. American Stage, ushering in the first season of its new artistic director, Todd Olson, reported a deficit. Opera Tampa cut back its number of productions. Gorilla Theatre stopped doing its own work, bringing in a troupe to put on some amateurish productions before going dark this month.

At the performing arts centers, commercialism continued to gain the upper hand. Though the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center packed them in for its Broadway series, you have to wonder about priorities when bay area groups must work around tours in Morsani Hall. It's one thing for TBPAC's main hall to be occupied by a legitimate piece of art such as The Lion King, but the Rockettes? Last weekend the Master Chorale and orchestra gave their Tampa holiday concert at the University of South Florida's drab Special Events Center, while the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show tied up Morsani.

Ruth Eckerd Hall unveiled its renovated auditorium, a great improvement. Now let's hope the 20-year-old hall, conceived as a home for the fine arts, isn't overrun by the aging (and apparently still lucrative) rock bands that take up an increasing portion of its schedule. A metaphor of sorts was achieved when a chamber music concert in the Heye Great Room had to compete with the din of a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert going on at the same time in the adjoining auditorium.

The result of a commercial effort gone wrong can be seen at the Mahaffey Theater at Bayfront Center. Facing an uncertain future after presenting too many shows that not enough people attended, this jewel of a venue scaled back its season to a subterranean profile.

On the state level, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature virtually eliminated arts funding, wrecking what had been a progressive, fiscally sound program. The gutting of the cultural trust fund was an appalling act of shortsighted politics.

Government support is going to be necessary to save the arts. One encouraging development came in the administration of Tampa mayor Pam Iorio, who named Paul Wilborn to the new position of city manager for creative industries, or cultural czar. Wilborn, a musician, playwright and former journalist at the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune, helped secure city funding for the orchestra to give some parks concerts.

To be sure, there were bright spots onstage. There always are. The performing arts are a lot tougher than many people realize. Some highlights:

* Sanderling and the orchestra's new associate conductor, Susan Haig, brought a tremendous infusion of fresh talent to the music scene. Choral fans are still buzzing about his Mozart Requiem and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms with the orchestra and Master Chorale. Haig has proved to be a personable presence on the podium, an intrepid guide to unfamiliar music and a deft pianist.

Now if only she and Sanderling can perform an intervention on their audience to aid its recovery from warhorses. It's embarrassing how little music of our time or unpredictable programming is presented in the orchestra's masterworks series.

* The best new music was heard in Mark Sforzini's Octet, premiered by orchestra principals in the Palladium Theater's exemplary Encore series, and Eleanor Daley's Requiem and Listen to the Sunrise, beautifully sung by the Master Chorale under artistic director Rick Zielinksi.

* Other music off the beaten track that I enjoyed included a zestful concert of Frank Zappa pieces, performed by Bogus Pomp and orchestra members and other players, arranged and conducted by Tom Trapp in the rococo splendor of the Tampa Theatre; and a remarkable evening of jazz-classical fusion by India's saxophone star, Kadri Gopalnath, at USF in Tampa.

* Of course, there is still much to be said for the standard repertory. Violin concertos in particular were showcased by the orchestra this year, with superb solo playing by concertmaster Amy Schwartz Moretti in Barber and Beethoven, James Ehnes in Sibelius and Lara St. John in Prokofiev.

* Sarasota Opera had an excellent season, featuring Verdi's Macbeth in the original and the revised scores, with Todd Thomas as the Scottish king. Montemezzi's L'amor dei tre re was resurrected from obscurity, with a strong performance by bass Kevin Short as the blind king Archibaldo.

* Opera Tampa showed some of the quality that may be diminished by cutbacks with a powerful staging of Otello, highlighted by the compelling Iago of Stephen Kechulius. The company also presented mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in a recital so richly felt and beautiful that it was profound.

* At American Stage, Olson didn't waste any time, directing the first two productions of the current season. His O'Neill credentials were in good order with fine performances by Julie Rowe and Ned Averill-Snell in A Moon for the Misbegotten. In the company's Shakespeare in the Park, director Andy Goldberg followed up his hip-hop smash The Bomb-itty of Errors with a youthful high-energy staging of Romeo and Juliet.

For the most part, however, theater in these parts was almost irrelevant, either not very well done, completely unadventurous or both. When, for example, was the last time the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota produced anything that demanded to be seen?

* Stageworks deserves credit for tackling Millennium Approaches, the first part of Tony Kushner's epic, Angels in America, if only for going where other companies timidly fear to tread and bringing an important, gutsy piece of theater to the bay area.

* Dance is like the abandoned star of bay area culture, an inexplicable failing given the talent being churned out by arts magnet schools and studios. West Florida Ballet has promising young dancers, and artistic director Mark Anthony Jelks puts them to the test in some challenging work, as well as the obligatory Nutcracker. In modern dance, Moving Current looks as if it has staying power, continuing to cultivate the choreography of co-founders Erin Cardinal and Cynthia Hennessy in the company's first season of using USF as its home base.

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