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Florida Orchestra struggles to create balanced program

The Florida Orchestra is in a terrible bind. On the one hand, music director Stefan Sanderling and the orchestra want to — need to — play contemporary classical music. An endless stream of standards by Beethoven, Brahms and the Russians is a programming strategy that leads to artistic oblivion.

But whenever the orchestra sprinkles some relatively new music into its concerts, such as a couple of 20th century French works heard in masterworks programs this season, it turns off a significant number of audience members. These usually are subscribers, the most loyal listeners the orchestra has.

This season, I have received quite a few letters from concertgoers complaining about mildly adventurous works by the likes of Messiaen, Dutilleux, Harbison and Helps, and I expect the orchestra has, too.

"We truly were not impressed with this display of contemporary music,'' wrote Carol Enters of Clearwater after hearing the Helps Symphony No. 2. "If, indeed, maestro Sanderling is impressed, let him mount a series all his own, so that those who appreciate such presentations can enjoy them . . . and those who do not will not have to suffer through them.''

This sort of response undoubtedly has something to do with the 2008-09 season's masterworks schedule, which includes just two works by living American composers, John Corigliano and Samuel Adler, and not a single premiere.

The orchestra can't win. There are plenty of listeners who want to hear new music, and I also get mail from them. "Is this, after all, 'God's waiting room' (where composers have to wait half a century to be heard)?'' wrote Edward Strickland in protest of next season's timid programming.

None of this debate is new, of course. The history of classical composition, from Schoenberg, Webern and Berg in the early 1900s on, documents an increasingly marginalized art form rejected by much of its audience in favor of the glories of the past. Even the most progressive American orchestras stick to the tried and true. For all the new music that Michael Tilson Thomas programs in San Francisco, the schedule is still top-heavy with Brahms and Beethoven — and rightly so, since they and the rest of the 19th century greats defined the institution of the symphony orchestra.

But must we hear the Rachmaninoff piano concertos so often? Or Carmina Burana? Does every season have to include a Tchaikovsky symphony or concerto?

Perhaps the problem is not with the new music, but in how carelessly it is introduced to audiences. Sanderling and the orchestra try to inject some modern works into programs, but this season's pairings of new with old have seemed ham-handed and illogical.

A mishmash of music

Dutilleux's daunting cello concerto, Tout un Monde Lontain (with the superb soloist, Xavier Phillips), and Tchaikovsky's evergreen Fifth Symphony made for a contrast, but they speak to different sides of the brain.

Messiaen (L'Ascension) and Bruckner (Symphony No. 9) were a similarly schizophrenic combination. About the only connection I could make in my review was that both composers were Catholic. Oh, well.

The Harbison Double Bass Concerto and Carmina Burana was another puzzling match. I found the program of Bob Helps' symphony and the Brahms First Piano Concerto especially strange, since Helps, the late USF professor and piano virtuoso, was no fan of Brahms.

It doesn't help that the orchestra has nobody responsible for thinking creatively about how to cultivate the audience, having let go its education director in budget cutbacks. The last time it did a good job of preparing the way for a relatively unfamiliar piece of music was a mini-seminar on Kurt Weill in 2005 at the Salvador Dali Museum before concerts featuring soprano Lisa Vroman in Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins.

Sanderling has some blind spots when it comes to programming. Surely the music of John Adams, America's most popular living composer, should be a no-brainer. But the last time the orchestra played any Adams was 2002, when guest conductor Michael Christie led performances of Harmonielehre.

The pops programming is also stuck in the Dark Ages. The most recent program I felt compelled to review was when Pink Martini, a hip lounge band, was the guest artist, and that was two years ago. Whereas other orchestras are presenting stylish pops programs — a survey of scores by Alfred Hitchcock's favorite Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann, say — we're subjected to a mishmash of music from John Wayne movies or Motown acts.

This will never do. It's time for the orchestra to start bringing imagination to its programming or be doomed to irrelevance.

Tharp shows canceled

A discouraging sign was the cancellation this weekend by Orlando Ballet of its performance of three works by Twyla Tharp at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. This probably signals the end of the company's effort to find a dance audience in the bay area, though it's unfortunate that it staged humdrum productions such as The Nutcracker and a ballet adapted from The Pirates of Penzance at TBPAC, while pulling the plug on its most appealing program.

John Fleming can be reached at

fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

Florida Orchestra struggles to create balanced program 03/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 11:18am]

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