BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
The Florida Orchestra is on a roll. In the past month or so, it has received a lot of attention for projects like recording the theme music for a video to run before Tampa Bay Lightning home games and the first episode of its multiyear cultural exchange with Cuba, when a quintet of the orchestra's principal wind players paid a visit to Havana for a concert and master classes.
Now the orchestra opens its season with one of classical music's most popular, recognizable pieces, Carl Orff's "profane cantata," Carmina Burana, the centerpiece of three masterworks concerts this weekend.
This is all according to plan, says marketing director Sherry Powell, who also cites the orchestra's partnership with International Plaza as part of an effort to raise its visibility. In September, orchestra musicians performed during the 10th anniversary Fall Fashion Week at the posh shopping mall in Tampa.
"Our intention was to get some awareness in the marketplace and start the season with strong blockbuster concerts," Powell says. "A lot of this was planned so that hopefully one thing would reinforce the next to get people excited about the orchestra."
In the next few weeks, the orchestra has other high-profile events on the agenda, including what likely will be its largest youth concert ever, hosted by the Lightning at the St. Pete Times Forum, on Wednesday; free parks concerts Oct. 22 and 23 in St. Petersburg and New Tampa; and the opening program of its pops series, a merger of symphonic music and Cirque du Soleil-style performers Nov. 4-6.
Underlying all these programs is the orchestra's new policy of lower ticket prices. The 2011-12 season is the first in which tickets to masterworks and pops concerts are sold in just three price categories: $15, $30 and $45. It's a dramatic reduction from last season, when tickets sold at five prices, ranging from $19 to $67.
So far, the results of the lower pricing have been encouraging. Powell says the subscription renewal rate is up about 10 percent from the previous season, though there has been some loss of revenue.
"We're measuring our success in terms of audience growth," she says. "Revenue is about 6 percent below last year, but the audience is about 6 percent above. I think we'll make up in volume the loss of earned income from the lowered ticket prices. In the long term, that increased volume will drive the orchestra."
Advance sales for Carmina Burana are well ahead of the usual numbers for opening-week concerts, which in the past have often played to less than full houses because many winter residents, a significant segment of the orchestra's audience, are not here yet. But Orff's cantata has plenty of appeal on its own.
"It's just one of those pieces that is unlike anything else," says James Bass, artistic director of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, which will join the orchestra for the performances. "It's like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. It has that epic quality and a driving rhythm that grips us instantly."
Along with the orchestra and Master Chorale, the musical forces include the Tampa Bay Children's Chorus and three soloists: Martha Guth, soprano; Noel Espiritu Velasco, tenor; and Weston Hurt, baritone. Guest conductor Markus Huber will be on the podium for the program, which also has Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio overture and Haydn's Symphony No. 100, Military.
Carmina Burana, with its bawdy Latin texts from the 12th and 13th centuries, comes with some unsavory associations. Orff, the foremost German composer during the Nazi years, premiered the work in 1936. It was promoted by Hitler's National Socialist Party regime as an anthem of the "New Germany" and performed at party and government functions.
But Orff's music has outlived its politics. His pop Gothic cantata has remained an integral part of the choral-orchestra repertory and been appropriated by everything from sports teams to car ads.
"It's got a memorable text and catchy tunes," Bass says. "You don't need a deep musical education to understand and consume Carmina, and that's why audiences will always have a relationship with it."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.