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Orchestrating a schedule change

The Florida Orchestra, pushed aside by Broadway tours, hopes Tampa audiences will go for Monday night performances.

By JOHN FLEMING
Published September 26, 2004

TAMPA - The Florida Orchestra has been handed lemons. Now it is trying to make lemonade.

In a risky move, the orchestra has switched all 12 of its masterworks programs during the upcoming season in Tampa from Friday to Monday night. It is an attempt to bring some consistency to the orchestra's schedule at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, where the preferred, 2,500-seat Morsani Hall isn't always available to the orchestra because the center gives priority to lucrative Broadway tours and other presentations.

Ideally, the orchestra would like to play its masterworks program first in Morsani on Friday night, followed by performances in St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater on Saturday and Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall on Sunday.

But with shows like The Phantom of the Opera tying up Morsani for weeks at a stretch, the orchestra often had to settle for Ferguson Hall, which is so acoustically inadequate that season ticket holders often avoided concerts there. Conversely, demand for popular programs has outstripped Ferguson's 1,000-seat capacity.

Sometimes the orchestra would change dates rather than switch to Ferguson, turning the Tampa masterworks series into a crazy quilt of different days and venues. Subscription sales suffered.

Now the orchestra will perform on Monday, the traditional night off for theater and other performing arts groups. Even so, the orchestra can't get into Morsani on two Mondays during the season, so only 12 of the 14 masterworks programs will be played in Tampa.

Music director Stefan Sanderling recognizes that Monday is a tough sell. But he thinks the orchestra has no other choice if it wants to be heard in an optimum setting.

"People develop a certain rhythm in their life, and if until now Friday was their day to go to the concert, then we demand a lot from them that they have to learn that Friday is no more and now it is Monday," Sanderling said. "We need to convince people that Monday is the only chance that the Florida Orchestra can be heard in Morsani Hall."

Some subscribers have no problem with Monday night concerts if that's the only way to ensure being in Morsani. In Ferguson, the full orchestra barely fits on the small stage.

"I'm excited about not having to go to Ferguson," longtime subscriber Audrey Haubenstock said. "Ferguson is great for certain things, but not for the orchestra. It looked like it was going to explode off the stage there."

Others have balked at Monday in Morsani. With just more than 1,000 subscribers to the upcoming masterworks series in Tampa, in packages ranging from all 12 concerts to five concerts, sales are off 25 percent from a year ago.

"I felt that the switch from Friday to Monday was weird because Monday is a very difficult time to attend the orchestra," said James Barnard, who did not renew his subscription. "You don't usually pick Monday as a night out."

Barnard, a retired University of South Florida professor, has been attending orchestra concerts in Tampa for more than 15 years. He plans to buy single tickets this season. He thinks the change to Monday will hurt the orchestra's efforts to attract a younger audience.

"You look around for young people at a concert, and there aren't many," he said. "It would seem to me that Monday night would make it almost impossible for any high school kids to be involved."

The orchestra and TBPAC are trying to make Monday as appealing as possible. The performance starts a half-hour earlier, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket holders get a $5 discount at the center's restaurant, Maestro's. Sandwiches and beverages will be sold for Sanderling's preconcert talks.

TBPAC president Judith Lisi said the orchestra gets a break on the rent to play on Monday. "We gave them a big reduction in rent. It's 50 percent less than Friday. It actually costs us money. We work very hard to keep the orchestra."

Lisi declined to say how much the orchestra will be charged this season. Orchestra executive director Leonard Stone said rent for Friday night in Morsani was $4,500, and that it will be reduced for Monday night but the final figure was yet to be determined.

Some large Broadway productions require Monday to load into Morsani, making a concert impossible. In upcoming seasons, the hall will be occupied for at least two weeks by shows such as Hairspray, Wicked, The Producers and others. Phantom returns again for almost a month this season. Even though there is no performance on Monday, the set is too big to allow anything else onstage.

As wrenching as the change to Monday promises to be, there is precedent in symphony orchestra circles for weeknight concerts. Subscriber Haubenstock remembers going to Monday night concerts in Tampa's old McKay Auditorium. When principal cellist James Connors joined the orchestra about 15 years ago, it played on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights.

"Monday is not particularly common, but a weekday is more the rule than the exception, at least traditionally. The big traditional subscription nights were Wednesday or Thursday," said Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League.

McAuliffe thinks the orchestra could turn Monday night into a workable solution to its hall woes in Tampa. He cites motivational research that divides potential ticket buyers into those for whom a concert is a "diversion" and who are more likely to attend on weekends and those for whom it is a "destination" regardless of what night it is held.

"The appeal of Friday and Saturday is that you get the casual concertgoer who thinks of doing entertaining things as a diversion on the weekend," McAuliffe said. "My guess is it's harder work to get a new person to come on a weekday, but I'm also thinking that once you've achieved that, it may be easier to keep them. "In a way, the orchestra is making a statement that what we offer is a destination. If we can provide this set of concerts in the right venue, at a consistently reliable time, people will seek it out. We're carving a niche for what we do. We'll move them from the casual drop-in Friday to the dedicated Monday night subscriber."

McAuliffe pointed out that hall problems can be fatal if not resolved. He cites similar circumstances as contributing to the demise of the Florida Philharmonic on the Gold Coast and the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra (which is back in business after declaring bankruptcy last season) in Texas.

"It's not unusual that hall availability is a real issue," he said. "If you're playing in a place that's inappropriate, it's not going to be a satisfactory experience for anybody."

Jan Hickin, the orchestra's marketing director, said ticket sales for the occasional Monday masterworks concert in Tampa have not been bad during her tenure. In March, with a Brahms piano concerto on the program, a Monday concert in Morsani had attendance of 1,441, compared with 1,512 at Mahaffey on Saturday and 1,301 at Ruth Eckerd on Sunday. Typically, attendance is lowest in Clearwater.

"Only once (in recent years) did we have a miserable audience on Monday in Tampa, for a Bruckner symphony," Hickin said. "So I can only think that ultimately it can work."

Hickin is projecting average paid attendance of 1,000 for this season's Monday concerts. "You've got to do that to survive," she said. "Ideally, the orchestra should be up to an average house of 1,600 in all three halls. Then you can move forward in a positive way."

Despite the hall problems at TBPAC, the average attendance for orchestra masterworks concerts last season was 1,514, within hailing distance of Hickin's goal.

Only the masterworks series is being shifted to Monday. The pops series will continue on Friday, with three of the eight programs to be played in Ferguson.

A pops program has music that doesn't necessarily demand acoustic subtlety, and its audience probably regards a concert (in McAuliffe's formulation) more as a diversion than a destination and would be less willing to attend on Monday.

With masterworks shifted to Monday in Tampa, the opening concert in the series will now be Saturday night at Mahaffey in St. Petersburg. That will change the rehearsal and performance pattern of the orchestra.

For example, in previous seasons, the orchestra usually had its dress rehearsal on the Friday morning of the opening evening performance at TBPAC; this season, the dress rehearsal will still be on Friday for most programs, but the opening performance will be a day later. Rehearsals will not be held on Saturday, which many orchestra musicians devote to teaching, an important source of income for them.

"From a performing standpoint, I don't think it's going to be that big a difference," principal cellist Connors said. "It's just a matter of the group getting used to it. Being able to play in the big hall instead of bouncing around will be more important than any other consideration."

The orchestra is pursuing other engagements for its vacant Fridays. Sanderling will conduct three masterworks programs in Gainesville at the University of Florida's Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Fridays in January, February and May.

"I'm convinced that the Florida Orchestra has to live up to its name and become Florida's orchestra," Sanderling said, mentioning the Utah Symphony and the New Jersey Symphony as ensembles that perform statewide. "I think in the long run this is our future."

The Phillips Center presents touring orchestras, such as the St. Petersburg (Russia) Philharmonic and the Prague Symphony Orchestra. The Florida Orchestra will rent the hall itself, a risk if the concerts don't draw well.

"It's a risk that could pay off," Hickin said. "If we could make this work and generate some revenue, we could have a nice little niche for ourselves. We could possibly do four (in Gainesville) next season, because we have that Friday night. The only thing might be the tiredness of the orchestra, which will be playing four masterworks in four days those weeks."

Sanderling, in his second season as music director, has no illusions about the challenge of playing on Mondays in Tampa. "It's going to be difficult, but I'm not pessimistic. We will make it work somehow and people will come back."

Still, as a German-born conductor who primarily worked in Europe until recently, he is amazed that there has not been more of an outcry about the orchestra getting pushed aside by Broadway tours and pop acts.

"I fully understand that a performing arts center needs to be financially successful, but how is it possible that the center can decide not to have 14 Fridays in one year for the orchestra? What a declaration of cultural bankruptcy."

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

PREVIEW

The Florida Orchestra opens its masterworks season with a program of Mozart and Richard Strauss on Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater, Oct. 3 at Ruth Eckerd Hall and Oct. 4 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center; all concerts are at 7:30 p.m. $15.50-$50.50. 813 286-2403 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286; www.floridaorchestra.org

[Last modified September 23, 2004, 16:58:20]


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