“Let's go on, everybody. Mahler is calling." • Jack Heller, seated at a podium in a meeting room at St. James Methodist Church, shouted for the 70 or so musicians around him to settle down and get ready to play through Mahler's Symphony No. 1. It was the regular Tuesday night rehearsal of the Tampa Bay Symphony, and he was impatient to get on with it. • A few minutes later, Heller stopped the music. "Trombones and horns, you're the culprit," he said about a missed entrance. "We've only got one more rehearsal before the concert. Please take your music home and practice it. Every part is important."
For 25 years, Heller has been coaxing music from the amateur players of the Tampa Bay Symphony, but last week he was preparing his finale. The centerpiece of the program is Gustav Mahler's symphony called the Titan, an ambitious work that would test the mettle of any orchestra, much less one made up of volunteers that include car mechanics, physicians, lawyers, ministers, homemakers and students. They come from all over the bay area, and the orchestra gives concerts in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater.
"It really is grand," said Heller, 78, who retired nine years ago as a music professor at the University of South Florida. "This is what music should be all about. People come together because they love to do it."
But conducting a community orchestra is not without problems. Last week, the principal bassoon had to miss rehearsal. "On Tuesdays, I anguish," Heller said. "I know this one or that one isn't going to show up. And it affects the way we sound."
Heller plans his programming with amateur musicians in mind. "You want to program pieces that magnify the group's strong points and minimize the weak points," he said.
The orchestra plays a lot of standard 19th century romantic works, in part for practical and motivational reasons, because the full instrumentation gives all the musicians plenty to do and keeps them interested. "Beethoven is always good," Heller said. "We can rehearse Beethoven week after week, and people don't get tired of it. It's an amazing phenomenon. Beethoven lasts."
One of the most memorable programs was in 2005, when the symphony, with a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, performed the Brahms Violin Concerto with international star Ani Kavafian as the soloist. "To have a player like that was wonderful," said Heller, a violinist himself.
At last week's rehearsal, the musicians had a little celebration for Heller during the break. A visitor was the group's longtime concertmaster, Halina Bobrow, a former violinist in the Toronto and Cleveland orchestras who played under legendary conductors such as George Szell, Seiji Ozawa, Loren Maazel and Pierre Boulez.
Heller remembers the day Bobrow, who had changed careers to become a nurse in St. Petersburg, auditioned for the Tampa Bay Symphony. "It was my first year, and Halina showed up. I nearly fell off my chair."
Bobrow had hoped to retire from the orchestra the same time Heller did, but arthritis prevented her from playing this season. "This ragtag orchestra, at concerts, sounds very good," she said. "Very few community orchestras sound as good. Jack has a spark. He has the ability to bring all these people together. Even when he screams, nobody gets offended."
The symphony plans to audition candidates next season to replace Heller, who was paid $20,000 in 2009-10. The fall concert program will be led by John Bannon, principal timpanist with the Florida Orchestra, as well as a conductor. Bannon was playing in the percussion section during last week's rehearsal of the Mahler symphony.
Heller's swan song also includes a movement from the Grieg Piano Concerto, with the solo part played by the winner of the orchestra's young artist competition, Maxwell Grossman, a senior at Stetson University.
Judy Heller, the conductor's wife, was at the rehearsal, reading a paperback as the musicians played. The Hellers' son, Mark, plays in the cello section. She thinks her husband is going to miss the routine.
"It's going to kill him to sit in the audience and watch," Mrs. Heller said. "I think he'll be conducting in his seat."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.