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Requiem for an orchestra

The demise of Florida's largest symphony raises concerns about the state's cultural currency.

Published January 23, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Keith Profit, 31, an East Lake High School graduate who lives in Melbourne, inspects a xylophone at Thursday's auction in Fort Lauderdale. The bankruptcy of the Florida Philharmonic last year makes the Florida Orchestra in Tampa the biggest in the state.
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FORT LAUDERDALE - The last time Shannon Wood was in the Florida Philharmonic's rehearsal hall, he played timpani in a melancholy waltz.

On Thursday, Wood walked the room in a melancholy waltz of a different kind.

Sound-absorbing panels, computers, two Steinway pianos: all were heaped in the middle of the floor. Auctioneer Louis Fisher stepped in front of the heap to begin the last rites in the slow death of the once mighty Florida Philharmonic.

"This is bankruptcy court-ordered auction number 03-23513-BKC," Fisher intoned.

The first item sold quickly, $2,400 for a xylophone.

The auction marked more than the death of the state's biggest symphony orchestra. It also was a vivid example of the uphill battle to nurture the arts in a sprawling state of transients, transplants and sun worshipers more inclined to Buffett than Beethoven.

"People go to New York City to hear the Met and the Philharmonic," said Wood, who now teaches music and plays select gigs. "People don't come to Florida to hear the symphony. They come here to go to the beach.

"It's not like Florida is known for its culture."

The Philharmonic's death by bankruptcy last year made the Florida Orchestra in Tampa the biggest in the state, though that doesn't offer much reassurance: It cut musician pay 16 percent last year to help eliminate a $650,000 deficit.

Symphony orchestras are struggling nationally, but some of Florida's problems are unique.

It's not attendance: more people than ever are flocking to concerts by the Florida Orchestra and the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Florida's second-biggest.

It's not donations: they are up overall though corporate donations are down.

"Is there something in the water in this state?" wondered Leonard Stone, executive director of the Florida Orchestra. "It has always been difficult. Why has maintaining a symphony orchestra proven to be a challenge here?"

The state's transient nature plays a role, some say.

"One wonders what the feelings are of people who retire here," Stone said. "Is there a sense that they did it up north and they are not going to down here?"

Peter Pfitzinger, the technical director for the Atlanta Symphony, said Florida orchestras also must compete with nationally known orchestras that make lucrative visits to the state.

"If you're from Boston and living in Florida, you're going to go see the Boston Symphony when it comes to Miami," said Pfitzinger, who went to Thursday's auction looking for props and instruments.

Some in the state's arts community blame the government: Florida cut arts funding by $23-million last year, more than any other state.

"This country puts classical music on the bottom shelf and the government has never supported the arts as they do in Europe," said Judy Drucker, president of the Florida Orchestra Association. "It's a very, very terrible situation."

Stone calls orchestras "one of the great glories of western civilized man."

"Is the poverty of the spirit less important than the poverty of the pocket?" asked Stone.

For the Philharmonic, management problems also played role.

Founded in 1984, the Philharmonic tried to serve patrons in three counties. "We were called the I-95 orchestra," said Doug Whitaker, the Philharmonic's stage manager. "And it was no joke."

Management turnover was high. And because it didn't have a single home, it struggled to carve out an identity and financial base.

"During the good times, the organization wasn't able to put money away for the bad times," said Rich Freshwater, the Philharmonic's former financial director. "And after 9/11, our phones stopped ringing."

The Philharmonic closed just months before a new performing arts center started construction in Miami. The orchestra was to be a prime tenant.

The Florida Orchestra, meanwhile, has managed to survive since 1968 as a regional institution, serving Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, a more compact area than the Philharmonic's.

"The quality of this orchestra is much higher than its budget," said Fred Zenone, president of the Symphony Orchestra Institute in Washington, D.C. "I'm not sure if the Tampa Bay area understands that."

The death of an orchestra has a deeper impact than merely the loss of a concert season. Music education suffers and so does an area's ability to draw culturally minded people, Zenone said.

"Orchestras draw creative people, they draw accomplished, educated people," he said. "And if a community is not going to support an orchestra, it is going to go away. And the community will be much less attractive."

Orchestras in cities such as Houston, Cleveland and Tulsa have cut performances and fired staff, including musicians. Other orchestras, such as Pittsburgh, are on the brink of bankruptcy. Pittsburgh's endowment is down $40-million because of the stock market downturn.

Meanwhile, orchestras in San Jose, Calif., and Savannah, Ga., shut down for good last year.

"I'm worried about the future of the industry," said Alan Hopper, executive director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. "All of the positive things that are happening at a slow pace won't have time to kick in."

Hopper watched the Florida Philharmonic's demise with trepidation.

Hopper wants to cut more than $800,000 from the orchestra's $7-million budget. So he and his staff will take two weeks of unpaid leave and the concert season will be trimmed by two weeks. Hopper also is negotiating to reduce musician salaries.

The future may lie in smaller symphonies, said Karen Barnes, executive director of the Atlantic Classical Orchestra in Stuart. Smaller symphonies need less money, and can provide more eclectic entertainment, she said. The orchestra, which plays about 20 concerts a year, has 36 contract musicians.

Although state funding was cut from $10,000 to $3,000, it is relying largely on donors and ticket sales. So far, so good, Barnes said.

Similarly, what was once the Florida Symphony Orchestra in Orlando, which went bankrupt in 1993, is now the scaled-down Orlando Philharmonic.

Wood, the former timpani player for the Florida Philharmonic, went to Thursday's auction hoping to buy his old drums. But the price was too high.

"I'm numbed by it all," said Wood. "It's not really a dignified way to see things dismantled."

- Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or

[Last modified January 23, 2004, 01:32:51]

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