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The Florida Orchestra: finding harmony in old and new

The Florida Orchestra ended its 2009-10 season last weekend, and there was a piece on the final program that pretty much sums up my thoughts about where things stand now with the orchestra. It was Schubert's Symphony No. 5, led by guest conductor Gunther Herbig, an old-school maestro of the sort that tends to bring out the best of the orchestra. • Although it is firmly in the standard repertoire, the Schubert Fifth is not actually a familiar piece of music — to me, anyway; this may have been the first time I've heard it played. I was bowled over by how fresh and smart the music made me feel. I can't really put my finger on what pleased me so much, but from a musicological standpoint, the symphony struck me as a fascinating way station on the road from the classical restraint of Haydn and Mozart to the Sturm und Drang of Beethoven.

But I also realize that my enthusiasm for classical music is a minority view these days, which I was reminded of during the concert I attended at the Straz Center in Tampa. Seated on the aisle a row or two in front of me was a guy in his 20s or 30s, wearing a nice business suit, who texted and surfed on his smart phone throughout the Schubert. How depressing. At one point, I scrawled in my notebook, "The 21st century symphony orchestra is a museum!''

Of course, there's nothing wrong with museums, and when I look back over this past season, many of the performances I remember fondly were of works from at least 100 years ago: mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer in Mahler's mighty Third Symphony; Markus Groh's run through Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1; Haydn's Cello Concerto in C, with Julie Albers as the soloist.

But is this fetish for the past any way to build a modern audience? There is reason for alarm, judging from the latest survey on public participation in the arts by the National Endowment for the Arts that had people in symphony orchestra circles worried this season. It shows that since 1982 the percentage of adult Americans who go to classical concerts has dropped almost 30 percent. The only people who go to hear Haydn, Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Mahler as much as they used to are over 65. Everyone younger is going less, or not at all.

It's hard to generalize about the Florida Orchestra's audience. Sure, it does appear to be predominantly older, and there will always be the usual complaints from diehards whenever the orchestra programs the occasional contemporary work by a sharp-elbowed composer like Mark-Anthony Turnage, but there are also lots of times when it feels like the coolest band in town. There was a great, enthusiastic turnout for its Led Zeppelin concert, which was surprisingly valid. I think the orchestra's finest moment came in November when Scottish composer James MacMillan was here to conduct one of his own works as well as a performance of Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 4 so fine that it felt brand new.

MacMillan also gamely participated in one of the best things the orchestra did, making a jet-lagged appearance as part of a series of salons held at the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg in advance of that week's masterworks concerts. These intimate evenings of chamber music and informal talk were a wonderful way to forge ties between the orchestra and its audience.

The orchestra played as well as ever this past season and seems poised to get even better. Stefan Sanderling, who just completed his seventh season as music director, has gradually rebuilt sections of the orchestra that lost principals who moved on. This season was the first for the excellent principal flute Clay Ellerbroek, who has fit in smoothly with the rest of the wind section. Two of my favorite performances of the season featured the new principal English horn, Jeffrey Stephenson, who had key solos in the Sibelius tone poem The Swan of Tuonela and Dvorak's From the New World Symphony, which was recorded to be included on the orchestra's first CD since 1997.

Jeff Multer became concertmaster not long after Sanderling arrived, and the violin section has shown much improvement under his leadership. There is a new assistant principal second violin, Lucas Guideri. The principal French horn position has been vacant since James Wilson left for the Utah Symphony in 2008, but it will be filled next season by Robert Rearden, who comes from the New World Symphony with an impressive resume.

If things are on the upswing artistically, the orchestra's business side has faced tough sledding, not surprising in the middle of a long recession. I talked with Michael Pastreich, the orchestra's CEO, before the concert last weekend, and he pointed to an increase in single-ticket sales (up at least 33 percent from the previous season) and growth in the morning Coffee Concert series as positive signs. However, subscription totals are not robust, and the donors that the orchestra must count on have been hurt by the economic slump, too. Support from governments, corporations and individuals is down. If the orchestra doesn't pull a few financial rabbits from its hat by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, it will have a deficit. And that could lead to difficult changes.

In my review of the season finale, I quoted a remark by American composer John Harbison, who said that Schubert "got closer to full metaphysical revelation than any other composer." It was the best I could come up with to suggest the value of hearing something so glorious as the Fifth Symphony. Classical music and its issues can be maddening, but I can't imagine a healthy community without a symphony orchestra. We should be grateful that we have an outstanding one and strive to make it stronger.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

The Florida Orchestra: finding harmony in old and new 06/05/10 [Last modified: Sunday, June 6, 2010 2:37pm]

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