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Offstage movements tune orchestra

Staff changes, renovated surroundings and continuing challenges set the orchestra agenda.

By John Fleming
Published June 25, 2006

In looking back on the Florida Orchestra's season, which ended a month ago, it's not hard to identify highlights.

My favorite performances included Kurt Weill's "sung ballet,'' Seven Deadly Sins, with soprano Lisa Vroman and the vocal quartet Hudson Shad; and a pair of Dvorak rarities, his Requiem, with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, and the Piano Concerto, with Garrick Ohlsson as the intrepid soloist.

For many audience members, the Beethoven symphonies - all nine were played - will be the highlight of any season.

When I asked music director Stefan Sanderling what the highlight of the season was for him, he mentioned Mahler's Ninth Symphony.

But perhaps the true highlight of the season was not a performance. It was the announcement, in February, of Jeff Multer being named concertmaster of the orchestra.

"I thought it was important to have Jeff in place before some other things could happen,'' Sanderling said.

Multer, who had been acting concertmaster since the season began, filled a chair that was vacant for two years. With his appointment, the stage was set for the orchestra to begin moving forward artistically under Sanderling, who has just completed his third season as music director and signed an extension of his contract through 2011.

Without a permanent concertmaster, the top leadership position among the players, the orchestra was slow to deal with turnover in the ranks. Not entirely coincidentally, with a concertmaster finally onboard, a flurry of audition winners was announced at the end of the season.

They included Brandon Beck, a French horn player named assistant principal/utility, a chair that had been filled on an acting basis by Beck and another horn player for three years. Oleg Chelpanov and Nancy Chang won permanent positions in the violin section. Violinist William Kang won a one-year position.

Several more key positions remain open.

Andrea Kaplan, acting principal flute this past season, will continue in the same capacity. Auditions for the position were held, and Catherine Landmeyer, former principal flute for the orchestra, was a finalist, playing several programs in the spring. She was offered a one-year position, but did not take it. Another round of principal flute auditions will take place next season.

Another audition will be for a one-year position as principal oboe, to replace Martin Hebert, who joins the Oregon Symphony next season. He is the second principal to make the Florida-Oregon switch, following concertmaster Amy Moretti, who has occupied the first violin chair in Portland for two years.

As Hebert, principal oboe since 1999, said after he won his new job, it represents a step up, financially. Base pay this past season for Oregon Symphony members was about $41,000, while scale for their counterparts in the Florida Orchestra was about $27,000. Until the orchestra upgrades wages, it will continue to be vulnerable to losing players. Negotiations for a new musicians contract will get under way next season.

Two leading violin positions are also up for auditions next season: principal second violin and associate concertmaster.

The audition process is fraught with imponderables. Sometimes, the skills of a musician who does well in an audition, in which standard orchestral excerpts are played, does not translate to success with the orchestra as a whole.

"There is more to orchestra playing than just playing the right note at the right time,'' Sanderling said. "It's not just about finding the best player. It's about finding the best player for this orchestra.''

Auditions, for the most part, are conducted with candidates screened from the committee of orchestra members judging them. In a way, it's a demonstration of meritocracy at its purest. Sanderling, who is on the committee, prefers to see who is playing.

"You need to see how the person moves,'' he said. "Musicmaking is about more than just notes. It's about expressiveness. It's about movement.''

Sanderling points out that the Berlin Philharmonic, to take one prominent example, does not use a screen in auditions. Candidates play for the entire orchestra, which votes on the audition, with a simple majority carrying the decision. The Berlin music director has one vote, just like everybody else in the orchestra.

However they are done, auditions supply the life blood of an orchestra. "The most important moment is when you hire someone,'' Sanderling said.

Along with the influx of musicians, there are changes in the Florida Orchestra's management. Emily McClain is the new director of operations, coming from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Her arrival allows David Rogers to focus on artistic administration, instead of dividing his time between those duties and operations. Jan Hickin, the longtime marketing director, retires this month. Bill Faucett takes over as development director for Don Keel, who resigned. A search is on to hire an education director.

Sanderling's contract extension will provide stability at the top and give him the opportunity to engage in long-range planning. Strong support for the orchestra exists in the community, and he needs to figure out how to capitalize on that.

I think his biggest task is to raise the level of expectation for the orchestra and make it matter more to a wider spectrum of people than it now reaches. This is not something the music director can do alone. It will take a resourceful board of trustees and management. The musicians, too, have a pivotal role since they understand the arcane art and business of a symphony orchestra better than anyone.

Programming needs to be sharpened. This past season, Sanderling presented a Beethoven theme by pairing the symphonies with similar numbered works. This yielded some bracing matches - the Bartok Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion with the Second Symphony, say, or Boccherini's Cello Concerto No. 6 with the Sixth Symphony - but it was more an exercise in cleverness than deep musical exploration.

You can count on one hand the number of major new works the orchestra has played in recent years. Programming contemporary music is a challenge, of course, with an audience that loves its Brahms and Tchaikovsky, but the orchestra must make it happen. There are appealing works that would draw listeners from beyond the conservative core audience, such as John Adams' Doctor Atomic symphony, from his smashing new opera.

One of the highlights of the orchestra's season was the appearance by Pink Martini, a stylish lounge band from Oregon, on the pops series. It was not just an artistic success but a commercial one as well, drawing a younger crowd, on the whole, than typically turns out for pops.

But next season, it's back to business as usual on the pops front, with old-timers like Roger Williams, Jack Jones and Marvin Hamlisch dominating the series. They'll probably do well enough with their fans, but such a lineup doesn't do anything for attracting new audiences.

There are offbeat, artistically valid pops programs - Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings symphony, for example, or a concert of video game music - that have been hits for other orchestras, but they haven't reached Florida. Why isn't the orchestra moving heaven and earth to get this fresh programming?

Next season begins with a special concert in September, as Van Cliburn will play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto to celebrate the renovation and reopening of Mahaffey Theater. That was another highlight of the season past, when the orchestra was able to return to its regular St. Petersburg venue after spending more than six months in Pasadena Community Church, a troublesome environment for both musicians and audience.

Soon Mahaffey will be the administrative home of the orchestra, which should be a good thing. But the availability of the theater for performances and rehearsals over the long term is still far from guaranteed, as Mahaffey's new management company tries to find a niche in the Tampa Bay market.

Although the orchestra got the concert dates it wanted for next season, it had difficulty securing dates at the theater for rehearsals and auditions.

"It remains to be seen where the orchestra will have its rehearsal home, its acoustical home, its emotional home,'' Sanderling said. "I'm worried about it.''

John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or

[Last modified June 23, 2006, 10:52:48]

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