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Orchestra needs leaders with vision

By JOHN FLEMING
Published June 13, 2004

Two weeks ago, the Florida Orchestra finished its season with a spectacular Mahler Fifth Symphony, triumphantly concluding Stefan Sanderling's first season as music director.

The musicians went on summer hiatus on the high of a performance they could be proud of, and the crowds that gave them enthusiastic standing ovations were reminded again of the transcendent power of symphonic music.

Impressive and moving as the Mahler was, I feel more anxious about the future of music in the Tampa Bay area than at any time in 12 years of writing about the orchestra.

Not because the players aren't holding up their end. It's their excellence that has me convinced that the orchestra's problems can no longer be addressed with half-baked solutions.

So this is not a column about the orchestra's annual fund campaign, which seeks to balance the $7.5-million budget by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. Another deficit would be bad (the previous year it was almost $500,000), but it would be just a detail in the big picture.

The musicians do not have a labor contract for next season, but that, too, is a detail. The members of this orchestra have demonstrated many times that they will cooperate on a contract, often to their disadvantage, and that they would respond to a fair, realistic deal.

The real issue is the lack of a compelling vision for the Florida Orchestra, a solid notion of the orchestra's place in the community, a notion that needs to be founded on two bedrock principles.

The first is that symphonic music is a pillar of our culture, an enduring art form that brings joy, intellectual stimulation and spiritual meaning to all who take the time to listen. The second is that to be whole, a community must have a dynamic, relevant orchestra.

The best orchestras are not just vehicles for sublime artistic experiences like a Mahler symphony; they are also vital educational resources. More than 30,000 schoolchildren heard the orchestra on field trips this season, but the total could be much higher with a stronger, better-funded commitment to outreach programs.

Thousands turned out to picnic, share the music and enjoy the scene at free concerts in Vinoy, Coachman, Lowry and other parks. Imagine how much more satisfying these events would be if the orchestra could afford a top-level outdoor sound system.

Informal blue-jean concerts at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg took on fun, clever themes, such as a program of cartoon music, but the orchestra doesn't have the marketing power to reach the audience that would dig them most, young people more at home in rock clubs than concert halls.

All these things speak to a fundamental connection between music and community, one that can help to cultivate a sense of hometown pride and ownership. That is deeply needed in the Tampa Bay area, where so many of us are from somewhere else, and where traditions are hard to come by.

Sanderling is a gifted communicator, and he gave plenty of speeches in his first season, but a music director's primary job is to improve the level of the orchestra's play, put together interesting programs and conduct soul-stirring performances.

A vision for the orchestra must come from the community itself.

But where are the business and civic leaders with the sophistication to shape this orchestra's vision, the skill to articulate it to a diverse community and the clout to make it happen?

These people don't have to be musical geniuses, but they do have to believe that, in its own way, the orchestra should be as closely identified with our area as the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Just a few years ago, the Lightning was a laughingstock. Today, it's the Stanley Cup champion. If that kind of transformation can happen here, why can't an excellent orchestra also be a source of civic pride?

But if a high caliber of leadership doesn't rise to the challenge, and do it soon, then it's time to ask if the Tampa Bay area deserves the orchestra.

This season seemed so full of promise, with two exceptional new conductors on board, Sanderling and associate conductor Susan Haig. Midway through the season, the engaging Richard Kaufman was named pops conductor, starting in the fall.

Against all odds, the orchestra now has one of the most talented conducting staffs in the country. These three conductors, and the musicians who play for them, constitute a remarkable cultural asset for a metropolitan area whose image seems defined almost entirely by sports and sunshine.

But much of the promise that arrived with Sanderling and Haig was squandered in September when the orchestra board of trustees announced it cut the musicians' pay to balance the budget. The season opened on a sour note, and the kind of promotional hoopla you would expect to herald a new era for the orchestra never materialized.

The budget cutting, which also affected management, now seems misguided because it did not generate any appreciable new support. Apparently having some of the lowest-paid orchestra musicians in the country was not much of a selling point to prospective donors.

In addition, trustees broke a promise they made to the musicians. As part of the renegotiated contract, the board had agreed to launch a campaign to raise as much as $20-million for an endowment to provide investment interest and income to supplement the operating budget. But the campaign has yet to be formally announced because not enough money has been pledged to assure its success.

The board includes dedicated supporters of the orchestra who work hard on its behalf, and the endowment campaign appears to have been well thought out. It may yield handsome results down the road. But for whatever reason, the big checks and big ideas haven't come in.

Where is the leadership to develop and communicate the vision that will be needed to get the endowment campaign off the ground?

The orchestra made it through the season in smart fashion, topped off by that great Mahler Five, but like a weary marathon runner, it started to fray after crossing the finish line. Two principal players - Amy Schwartz Moretti, winding up her fifth season as concertmaster, and Demarre McGill, first-chair flute since 2000 - gave up their positions to join other orchestras.

It's quite likely these ambitious young musicians would have moved on at some point, and superb principal players remain, but it was still dismaying to lose the concertmaster and principal flute at the same time. Sanderling's job of improving the orchestra suddenly got tougher.

Even some good news on the financial front was dimmed by its coming on the same day as some bad news. In early June, two couples - Dick and Helen Minck of Clearwater, and Al and Iris Bernstein of Tampa - each gave $250,000 to endow a pair of first chairs in the orchestra. These generous gifts may serve as primer for the endowment campaign, but their announcement was followed a few hours later by the abrupt disclosure by Jeff Bram, director of operations and artistic administrator, that he was leaving to become artistic administrator with the Utah Symphony.

Bram's departure, effective in August, puts the spotlight on a thankless task, that of the operations director, who must try to shoehorn the orchestra's rehearsals and performances into the three halls in which it plays. Each venue does bookings of its own that have priority over the orchestra.

This excruciating scheduling has been a losing battle for the orchestra, one that led to desperate measures at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, where touring Broadway shows take precedence. Next season the orchestra's masterworks programs in Tampa move to Monday night, when the preferred TBPAC venue, Morsani Hall, is less likely to be occupied by a tour, except when there's a long-running one, such as yet another engagement of The Phantom of the Opera in December. Will the orchestra audiences, often sizable on Friday nights when Morsani was available, show up on Monday?

This absurd mess should have been fixed long ago by a public-minded mediator instead of being left to the self-interested management of the halls and orchestra to hash out.

But where is the leadership to bring such Solomonlike wisdom to the table?

Perhaps it's time for the orchestra to explore the idea of making the Mahaffey Theater at Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg its home hall. TBPAC and Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater present busy schedules, but Mahaffey has scant bookings and is more available. It's worth thinking about having the orchestra perform a full range of programming at Mahaffey and tailor series for Tampa and Clearwater.

This could be an opportunity not just for the orchestra but also St. Petersburg, which has struggled to find an appropriate use for the city-owned theater. Mahaffey is a warmly attractive setting for concerts, and it has the orchestra's most loyal audience. The Thursday morning coffee concerts and Saturday night masterworks and pops concerts are well-attended and have a genuine sense of occasion about them.

Of course there is risk - ask the Devil Rays about the difficulty of drawing a crowd to St. Petersburg - but the old way isn't working for the orchestra; it never has worked.

Change is hard, especially for an institution in a financial crisis. But the orchestra doesn't have a choice. Yes, it will take a major infusion of money, but that will come if there is a vision.

Where are the leaders from the community who will make it happen?

-- John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 10, 2004, 13:29:16]


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