Stefan Sanderling likens the task of programming the Florida Orchestra's masterworks season to a kind of cosmic balancing act.
"We serve so many gods here and try to find this very fine line,'' Sanderling said recently. "It's so difficult, and I think we have achieved it this time. There is enough stuff that is challenging, and there is enough stuff that is soothing in a certain way.''
The orchestra's music director was talking about the 2009-10 season of 14 masterworks programs, which is being released today along with the pops and coffee series. His balancing act seeks to include plenty of popular pieces that will sell tickets while also challenging the audience with less familiar, often contemporary music that might open some ears.
"The big challenge is how do we remain relevant, and that's not only because of the bad economic times,'' Sanderling said. "Do we remain relevant by playing the Dvorak Ninth Symphony and the Beethoven Fifth Symphony? You know that I love those pieces. But I believe also that this alone is not the way to success. I believe that we have to not only broaden our horizons here, but we also have to sustain our horizons, that our programming doesn't get narrower and narrower every year.''
The evergreen Dvorak Ninth and Beethoven Fifth are, in fact, on next season's schedule, as are staples like Ravel's Bolero and Brahms' Second Symphony. But the masterworks agenda also has some substantial works new to the orchestra, including Charles Ives' Symphony No. 3, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 4 and Osvaldo Golijov's Last Round.
The most notable contemporary programming comes in November with James MacMillan's The Sacrifice: Three Interludes, conducted by the Scottish composer. A pair of stellar pieces by MacMillan, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and Veni, Veni Emmanuel, a percussion concerto, were previously performed by the orchestra.
"We're focusing on things that are important to us,'' Sanderling said. "We've played two pieces by James MacMillan, and now he's coming to conduct the third.''
Sanderling will conduct 10 of the masterworks programs. Along with MacMillan, the other guest conductors include two returnees — Gunther Herbig and Grant Llewellyn — and the debut of Estonian conductor Eri Klas, who will be on the podium for Estonian composer Arvo Part's Fratres, another notable contemporary work and a premiere for the orchestra.
The season opens with Cuban guitarist Manuel Barrueco, in a concerto to be announced, Oct. 9-11. Other guest artists include pianist Stefan Vladar in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, pianist Mikhail Rudy in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, cellist Julie Albers in Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1 and violinist Elena Urioste in Mozart's Turkish Concerto. Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer will play Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, and principal harp Anna Kate Mackle will be the soloist in Ginastera's Harp Concerto.
Sanderling will be on the podium with an unusual guest artist, a piano roll recording of George Gershwin playing the solo part of his Rhapsody in Blue. "Wait until you hear the encore,'' the music director said.
The meat and potatoes of symphonic repertoire won't be neglected, with Sanderling conducting Shostakovich (Symphony No. 6), Bruckner (Symphony No. 6) and Mahler (Symphony No. 3). The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay will join with the orchestra for Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah.
There are changes in the pops series, with Richard Kaufman stepping down as principal pops conductor. Kaufman, who has held the job since the 2004-05 season, is pops music director of several other orchestras, including the Dallas Symphony. Potential successors include Jeff Tyzik, who will conduct a holiday program by the orchestra and Master Chorale next season, as well as a program of Broadway hits; and Matt Catingub, who will conduct a Valentine's program next weekend and a tribute to Ray Charles in 2010.
Next season's pops series features the return of Cirque de La Symphonie, the circus-themed program that played to sellout crowds last season, and an appearance by composer-pianist-conductor Marvin Hamlisch.
The orchestra's popular coffee series, with concerts on Thursday mornings at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, has been expanded from six to seven concerts. Alastair Willis again presides over the series' programming of light classics and excerpts from opera and standard symphonic repertoire, conducting six concerts. Grant Cooper, artistic director of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, will conduct one.
The orchestra continues to go without a full-time associate conductor, a post previously held by Susan Haig and Tom Wilkins. Instead it has Willis and other guest conductors to handle the coffee, youth and park concerts.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.