Stuart Malina makes his debut Thursday morning as conductor of the Florida Orchestra's series of coffee concerts, which are popular for their informal mix of light classics, interspersed with banter by the maestro. Malina knows that his remarks to the audience may be as important as the music.
"The idea of conversation and music pretty much defines every concert that I do," said Malina, 48, who is music director of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra in Pennsylvania. "I speak at most concerts I perform in Harrisburg, including our masterworks programs."
Malina follows in the footsteps of a string of talkative conductors who have won over coffee concert audiences, including Ed Cumming, Tom Wilkins, Susan Haig and most recently, Alastair Willis. The role model for this casual approach is probably the late Arthur Fiedler, iconic conductor of the Boston Pops.
"For Arthur Fiedler, it was all about audience engagement, about the personality of the conductor and making the audience feel absolutely comfortable," said Malina, who will also conduct a pair of pops programs for the orchestra this season.
Malina's first coffee concert is made up of dance music, from the familiar (West Side Story overture) to music off the beaten path (Milhaud's polytonal Saudades do Brasil). Alexandra Alvarado Switala, a winner in the Sphinx Competition for young black and Latino string players, is the soloist in a showpiece by Wieniawski.
The new coffee conductor has a fan in Jeff Woodruff, the former general manager of the Florida Orchestra who, as executive director of the Harrisburg Symphony, has worked with Malina since 2003. Woodruff understands the rather specialized demands of the coffee concert format. "I was there when Tom Wilkins did it so brilliantly," he said. "If I had to predict, I'd say that Stuart will be just as brilliant, in his own way."
Woodruff especially recommended that the orchestra take advantage of Malina's talent as a pianist, and indeed, the conductor plans to play the piano part for Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue at a coffee concert in December.
Malina, with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Curtis Institute of Music, has enjoyed an eclectic career. He won a 2003 Tony Award for his orchestration of Billy Joel songs for Movin' Out, the Twyla Tharp dance musical. He also conducted the premiere of Joel's Symphonic Fantasies for Piano and Orchestra. He admires Joel's forays into classical music.
"I do think Billy's best work is as a singer-songwriter," Malina said. "In his classical music, it's very much referential to other piano music, like 'Oh, that section sounds like Grieg,' or 'Oh, that section sounds like Chopin.' But the bottom line is that he understands how to create a melody, and that translates very nicely."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.