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Before goodbye, USF's Ron Jones will celebrate his legacy

Ron Jones got a new job last month, as president of the Memphis College of Art. But he didn't want to leave his current one, as dean of the College of the Arts at the University of South Florida in Tampa, until the school's new music building was finally open.

"The whole month of April is a special month this year because of the opening of the music building,'' Jones said. "There was no way I could walk away from the celebration of this building.''

So Jones will be on the job at USF one more month to see his most significant achievement in 13 years as dean come to fruition. The $46.6 million music building, which includes a 485-seat concert hall and a 116-seat recital hall, officially opened Thursday. At 4 p.m. today, the first public performance will be given in the concert hall, with the school's symphony and chorus premiering Flash by Augusta Read Thomas.

The new building was needed to replace hopelessly outdated facilities for music education. "It was ready to be built in the 1980s but was bumped down the list of building priorities when the university decided to build the Sun Dome,'' Jones said. "It took years for it to get back on the radar screen. What a horrible place the music faculty and students had to put up with. How embarrassing it was.''

It even took two tries to get the appropriation for construction of the building approved by the governor. "Jeb Bush vetoed it the first time,'' Jones said. "We resubmitted it the following year, and it went across his desk and he signed it during his second term.

"This building took a long time. But it's opening in the worst of economic times, so I think we can really stand proud.''

USF's College of the Arts includes music, theater and dance, visual arts and architecture, with about 1,200 students and faculty and staff of about 150. Associate Dean Barton Lee has been named interim dean.

In Memphis, Jones will be president of a small, private college devoted to the visual arts, with about 500 students. He is taking on the new job at 68, an age when many have retired, or at least cut back on work. "It just causes the juices to flow,'' he said. "I think it's invigorating. I've never wanted to retire.''

One thing Jones won't miss in his new job is dealing with the Florida Legislature, which all state universities rely on for financial support. In March, he spent a day in Tallahassee lobbying for arts funding.

"These politicians are just so dense, so insensitive, so lacking in understanding of what the arts are, and their value to society,'' he said, recounting one session with legislators. "They looked at me and said, 'It's either chemotherapy or the arts, and we're going to fund chemotherapy.' You don't have to make it either-or. Intelligent people can do it a different way.''

• • •

Ronnita Miller is now a blossoming young opera singer, but when she was a student at Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg, she wanted to be an astrophysicist. Then romance entered her life.

"I had no aspirations toward a career in performance, but there was a boy I had a crush on in high school, and I joined chorus to get to know him,'' Miller said. "Things took off from there. At a Christmas show, I sang a solo O Holy Night, and something changed. I closed my eyes, and at the end of the song, people were clapping and on their feet. I thought, 'Is this for real? Can I do this?' ''

Yes, she could. Miller, who graduated from high school in 1995, went on to study voice at St. Petersburg Junior College, USF, Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School. Now 32, the mezzo-soprano has been a member of the prestigious young artist programs of the San Francisco Opera and the LA Opera, and she has performed in productions with the companies. In June, she is slated to sing the roles of Erda and the First Norn in San Francisco's Ring cycle of Wagnerian operas.

Miller, whose parents live in St. Petersburg, would love to perform with St. Petersburg Opera, but she is too busy with other commitments. "I so badly want to perform with St. Pete Opera,'' she said. "It's very close to my heart because I know people there and this is where I come from.''

In the meantime, Miller will sing a pair of arias from the Saint-Saens opera Samson et Dalila at a soiree put on by the company and its music director, Mark Sforzini, at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Music Gallery, 5990 Ulmerton Road, Clearwater. $8-$15. (727) 823-2040;

• • •

• Opera on the air: The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's Don Carlo airs at 3 p.m. today on WEDU, Ch. 3. The opera is a marathon, but diehard Verdians won't want to miss it. Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya is a major discovery.

• Curioser and curioser: Frank Wildhorn's Wonderland, which was developed at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, is now in previews on Broadway and opens April 17. Is there room for two shows inspired by Lewis Carroll's whimsical children's stories? Disney Theatrical Productions announced last month that director Tim Burton would preside over a stage adaptation of his recent Disney movie, Alice in Wonderland, for a possible Broadway musical.

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

Before goodbye, USF's Ron Jones will celebrate his legacy 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 4:30am]
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