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After long run, Florida Orchestra bids us farewell

Published August 26, 2006

The really disappointing news on the Pasco-Hernando entertainment scene this year is that, after almost 10 years of concerts, the Florida Orchestra will not be bringing its musicians to the Center for the Arts at River Ridge in New Port Richey in 2006-07.

It was a coup for the Nature Coast when the orchestra announced in June 1997 that it would establish a permanent three-concert series in New Port Richey starting that fall. Then, as now, the orchestra was touted as "the premier performing arts organization in the Tampa area," bringing a certain cachet to our area.

"You all have the distinction of being the first series for the orchestra outside Pinellas and Hillsborough counties," said publicist Greg Musselman at the time.

The cessation of the concert series was purely economics, said both Musselman and William Abbey, who is in charge of group services.

"We were taking in less than one-half what we needed just to break even," Musselman said. The orchestra could no longer subsidize a Pasco series, despite a devoted audience.

The reasons are obvious.

Even though most of the concerts were either sold out or close to it, there are only 900 or so seats to be sold at River Ridge. That's less than half those available at the orchestra's other venues: Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (2,557), Ruth Eckerd Hall (2,180) and Mahaffey Theater (2,030).

Half the seats, half the revenue.

Too, our concert series was priced below the going rate to the south, starting in 1997-98 with $36 for three concerts, going up to $63 for the season in 2004-05, but still lower than what we'd pay at a venue farther south.

To compound the problem, the costs to get the orchestra up here were much higher: mainly buses for musicians and instruments and added employee hours.

I started hearing from disappointed orchestra fans as soon as the cancellation became official. Most were from Hernando County, which, from my eyeball count of license plates in the parking lot on concert days, made up a big contingent of the audience.

I'm guessing that Pasco people aren't as upset because they're closer to Eckerd Hall and can get to the orchestra's concerts easier than people from Brooksville, Ridge Manor and Spring Hill.

To help out, the Florida Orchestra has put together a package of three concerts (the lowest number is usually five) similar in content to the River Ridge series to be played Sunday evenings in January, February and April at Eckerd Hall. They've also arranged transportation from River Ridge High to the concerts at just $10 for each round trip, so people won't have to drive the entire way.

The 30 bus seats sold out almost immediately, but if another 30 people sign up, the orchestra will arrange a second bus, Abbey said. (Call 813-286-1170 to get on the list.)

Still, because these are evening concerts, the drive from River Ridge home after the concerts will be in the dark. And many of the orchestra's most devoted fans don't drive after sunset.

Both Musselman and Abbey said the orchestra may one day return to River Ridge or another Pasco or Hernando venue.

"We're not ruling it out," they both said.

If they do return, we can expect a substantial increase in ticket price. After all, this is a top-notch professional organization with some of the world's most sought-after performers and leaders, and these people must be compensated adequately, or they'll leave.

* * *

Here's your chance to see a genuine veteran of a Broadway blockbuster for just 10 bucks.

Diana Rogers, who played the irascible Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables on Broadway in the early 1990s, will be playing Mother Superior in the River Ridge High School faculty's production of the musical comedy Nunsense at 7 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday at the school.

Ms. Rogers is now head of the River Ridge drama department, but she continues to perform professionally in resident and touring companies in the summer, including two stints as Mother Superior in two professional productions of the show in recent years.

Several of her fellow teachers and students are joining her in the local show to raise money for the school's drama department.

The theater is at 11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey.

[Last modified August 26, 2006, 06:32:35]

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