Grand finale

The Florida Orchestra's associate conductor Susan Haig ends her four-year tenure with flourish and a long standing ovation.

Published May 18, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Susan Haig went out with a big finish. In her final performance as associate conductor of the Florida Orchestra, Haig concluded Thursday morning's coffee concert with Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien, which winds up in a blaze of rapid dance rhythms and pure orchestral sound.

"It's been a great pleasure to share this music with you, " Haig said before the piece began, and the crowd of 1, 616 at Mahaffey Theater responded with a long standing ovation at the end. Orchestra operations director Emily McClain came onstage to give Haig a bouquet, and the conductor plucked a rose and handed it to concertmaster Jeffrey Multer.

Haig finished her four-year tenure where she began it, on the podium for a coffee concert, part of a popular series for which she programmed an impressive amount of new or relatively unheard works. Aside from the Tchaikovsky warhorse, Thursday's concert included such gems as 20th century Spanish composer Carlos Surinach's Feria Magica Magic Fair, the Sylvia ballet suite by Leo Delibes and Jean Francois Gossec's Tambourin, a delightful French baroque trifle featuring piccolo player Lewis Sligh.

"My very first trial week was a coffee plus other things, " Haig said during intermission in her dressing room. "That's been the most creative part of this job for me, the programming. And the morning concerts are slightly more relaxed. You have coffee and doughnuts, and you're ready to hear a variety of sounds."

Over the course of a season, Haig would conduct a wide range of repertoire, including masterworks subscription programs, educational programs for schoolchildren on field trips and outdoor programs of pops and light classics. Many programs would have to be pulled together in one or two rehearsals. "This is where the orchestra's mettle - its flexibility and ability to work quickly - is seen, " she said.

Haig, 53, figures that four years as associate conductor was enough. "It's a position that feels like you shouldn't have it any longer, " she said. "Four years is just the right amount of time."

She plans to move from Tampa, where she lives in a condominium building on Bayshore Boulevard, to the New York City area, having grown up in northern New Jersey and gotten her education at Princeton and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"I'm excited to find out what's next, but there's nothing set, nothing specific, " said Haig, who was music director of the South Dakota Symphony and the Windsor Symphony Orchestra in Canada before coming to Florida. "I'm very flexible as a musician. My background has included opera, orchestra, oratorio, (vocal) coaching, piano. Any and all of those things can come into play. I just have to get up there to find out what's needed. But there are not conducting jobs just waiting in New York."

Haig's predecessors in the Florida Orchestra's staff conducting post have gone on to good things. Edward Cumming has been music director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut for five years. Thomas Wilkins is in his first season as music director of the Omaha Symphony in Nebraska.

The orchestra has not named a replacement for Haig. "We held open auditions for a number of conductors in December, but decided to continue the process through next season, " McClain said. "We're now working on the list of conductors we'll be using."

Next season will be a challenge for the orchestra, which not only has a labor contract with the musicians to renew but increasingly limited access to venues for rehearsals, auditions and concerts. Still, Haig is optimistic.

"This is a terrific orchestra, and its support is so palpable, so obvious, " she said. "A lot of people's lives have been touched through free concerts. There's a strong relationship between the orchestra and the public here."

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