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A look at the Florida Orchestra and the price of innovation

Music director Stefan Sanderling, center, conducts members of the Florida Orchestra during a rehearsal. Selecting the repertory they perform is a major part of his job.

JOSEPH GARNETT JR. | Times (2005)

Music director Stefan Sanderling, center, conducts members of the Florida Orchestra during a rehearsal. Selecting the repertory they perform is a major part of his job.

Few columns I've written generated as much response as one in March about Florida Orchestra programming. I complained that music director Stefan Sanderling and others had dropped the ball this season. I said that the orchestra was not playing enough contemporary music, and when it did, the pieces were not skillfully introduced to the audience through thematic programming or some other educational effort.

I decried the orchestra's reliance on warhorses: "Must we hear the Rachmaninoff piano concertos so often? Or Carmina Burana? Does every season have to include a Tchaikovsky symphony or concerto?''

The e-mails and letters, pro and con, poured in from concertgoers. Two fairly typical ones are excerpted here.

Recently, I met with the orchestra's chief executive, Michael

Pastreich, the artistic administrator, David Rogers, and marketing director Sherry Powell to discuss the issue. Along with Sanderling, they help decide what the orchestra plays, balancing repertoire with the need to sell tickets, no small thing for an organization that has struggled to balance its budget.

Popularity pays off

"Nothing impacts ticket sales more than programming,'' said Pastreich, who is getting a crash course in the Tampa Bay market, having started his job here in October, when the season was already under way. He came from the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in the Chicago area, where he had been CEO for 11 years.

In many ways, the programming this season, which concludes this month, was a consequence of financial problems that started when a big chunk of the orchestra's public funding disappeared last year with property tax reform. To cut expenses, the orchestra rewrote its schedule after it had been announced, eliminating pieces that called for extra musicians (Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, for example) or were otherwise deemed economically unpromising. Great but not necessarily crowd-pleasing works such as the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 and the suite from Bartok's ballet The Wooden Prince were dropped.

To my question about having to hear Carmina Burana so often, the answer was a resounding yes, at least from the box office. It was the masterworks season's biggest draw, with paid attendance of 4,265 in three performances.

"My experience is that nothing sells like Beethoven Nine, then comes Carmina Burana, then everything else,'' Pastreich said.

Carl Orff's Teutonic choral opus even had a marketing tie-in as the music used in a TV ad of a hockey shootout featuring Pittsburgh Penguins phenom Sidney Crosby.

"We did an e-mail blast that said, 'Think you don't know Carmina Burana? Think again,' " Powell said. "And we had links to the Gatorade commercial that featured the music to let people know that they do know what it is. Five minutes after that hit, we started experiencing a real increase at the box office.''

Another big seller was an all-Russian program with the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, given a briskly appealing performance by the young soloist, Natasha Paremski.

A place for the new

Still, a number of contemporary works remained this season, much to the displeasure of some listeners who objected to sitting through, say, Dutilleux's cello concerto Tout un Monde Lointain to get to an old favorite after intermission, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

Sanderling and the orchestra are sticking to their guns, scheduling another Dutilleux work, his Tree of Dreams violin concerto, next season. Rogers, a composer himself, thinks it will go down more easily than the Frenchman's daunting cello concerto. Other newish music on the schedule for 2008-09 are Veni, Veni Emmanuel, a percussion piece by Scottish composer James MacMillan, whose The Confession of Isabel Gowdie got good listener response last season, plus works by American composers Samuel Adler and John Corigliano.

For the most part, though, the orchestra will be performing standards because that's what a lot of the audience wants to hear. "I think having Beethoven Seven, The Planets, Pictures at an Exhibition, the Paganini Variations, the Blue Danube waltz and the Verdi Requiem all on one season is a pretty powerful combination,'' Pastreich said.

The orchestra faces the usual hassle of gaining access to its three main halls, a trend that has depressed subscription sales for years. Next season, even the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, normally a reliable and popular venue, is unavailable for four of the 14 masterworks programs. It's a puzzling situation, given the utter lack of success of other performances at the city-owned theater, such as its thinly attended Broadway series.

One area in which the orchestra promises change is the pops series. Two pops programs — one featuring Latin percussionist Tito Puente Jr., the other with an oldies act, the Contours — were especially poorly received.

"We are doing a significant reformatting of pops,'' Pastreich said. "I went to a couple of concerts this season where I really didn't hear the orchestra. For sustainability, what we want to do is make the Florida Orchestra the star. Next season the pops programming will be far more symphonic.''

John Fleming can be reached at

fleming@sptimes.com or (727)

893-8716.

Here are excerpts from a pair of letters in response to the column on orchestra programming.

Why pay to be annoyed?

You lament the Florida Orchestra's unadventuresome scheduling of excessive music from the classical and romantic periods. Perhaps if I was a professional critic or member of a symphony orchestra I, too, might feel the same way. It must get boring hearing, night after night, the incomparably beautiful compositions of those periods.

However, I am neither professional critic nor musician. I am the multi-decade music lover with credit card in hand, and I vote with that card. As for that irritating group known as "modern composers,'' I find their pretentious cacophony completely lacking in beauty.

With just a touch of deliberate hyperbole, I reject the "music'' of any composer born later than Richard Strauss.

I have a good stereo system and a large HDTV. When I read in the Times of a program featuring that kind of trash, I stay home and select something from my vast collection of DVDs, CDs (and, yes, even vinyl). Why pay to be annoyed?

The reality of the matter is, if the house doesn't want to lose revenue, it must give the cash customers what they are willing to pay for.

Anthony Wickel, Clearwater

Missed opportunity

I don't think the Florida Orchestra or Stefan get it. The LA Phil, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, NY Phil, Carnegie Hall and the London Symphony Orchestra in Europe do. I understand the huge difference in demographics, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to be able to adjust their strategy to this area. These groups have been able to involve audiences not through pedagogic education but in a sharing-the-experience way of building interest in the product. I will never get over the canceling of the Shostakovich 15th Symphony. What a missed opportunity for playing that one piece a la Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. Nothing else would have been needed on the program.

Jeff Merta, Dunedin

A look at the Florida Orchestra and the price of innovation 05/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2008 4:36pm]
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