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Thomas H. Farquhar

Making the Mahaffey Theater sing

With planning, three jewels could all shine brighter: The new Dalí, its next-door neighbor, the Mahaffey, and a better-showcased Florida Orchestra.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

With planning, three jewels could all shine brighter: The new Dalí, its next-door neighbor, the Mahaffey, and a better-showcased Florida Orchestra.

Over the next few weeks, St. Petersburg officials will be reviewing three proposals for the management of the Mahaffey Theater at the Progress Energy Center for the Arts. This is an exciting opportunity to breathe new life into our beautiful downtown waterfront venue. • With the Salvador Dalí Museum's stunning success in the space where the Bayfront Center once stood, and with the simultaneous beauty of the Progress Energy Plaza green space uniting these two cultural icons, it is the perfect time to affirm the Florida Orchestra's status as the resident performing arts company of the Mahaffey Theater.

In the next few months, one of three contenders — incumbent SMG, Ruth Eckerd Hall or Big 3 Entertainment — will be awarded the contract to manage the Mahaffey for the next five years. Community leaders should view this decision as an occasion to determine the right niche for the Mahaffey Theater once and for all. I urge them to build upon the momentum that the Florida Orchestra's diverse programing provides.

Over the past few seasons, our concert lineup at the Mahaffey has included the traditional music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Mahler; great choral works such as Carmina Burana, Haydn's Creation and Verdi's Requiem; pops blockbusters Cirque de la Symphonie, Classical Mystery Tour and Marvin Hamlisch; and concert specials like the Music of Pink Floyd, Madama Butterfly, the Lord of the Rings Symphony and the Wizard of Oz. While our orchestra has demonstrated its strength through riveting musical presentations, growing concert audiences, creative collaborations with fellow arts organizations and resilient board leadership, our successes pale in comparison to what we could give our community if we had a long-term relationship with the Mahaffey Theater that would provide the security to allow us to plan with greater lead time and certainty.

The Florida Orchestra's primary mission is to present live concert performances in the theater. Experience shows that orchestras that are able to book dates and plan five years out vastly increase their quality of guest artists and fundraising possibilities. This security would enable the orchestra to present more diverse programing, all-star galas, festivals, arts-themed conventions, cooperative arts joint ventures, televised specials and free events, all of which would make the Mahaffey Theater a more vibrant and exciting destination for downtown St. Petersburg.

For many sound business reasons, it is critical that the Florida Orchestra and the management team chosen to run the Mahaffey Theater reach a multi-year operating agreement that will provide a foundation for planning, while nurturing an environment that will produce great performances for everyone in our community. This type of commitment would mutually benefit all entities, and St. Petersburg would clearly differentiate itself from the other theater venues in the region.

Just as the new Dalí Museum and the Mahaffey Theater reflect well on one another, adding a resident orchestra to the mix will validate the arts destination status the Mahaffey is seeking, further enhance the city's emerging cultural and urban renaissance, and solidify its identity as "Florida's City of the Arts."

The Florida Orchestra's annual concert seasons in St. Petersburg deliver significant economic impact to the city. As the primary user of the Mahaffey Theater, the orchestra provides the Mahaffey with almost half of all prime dates booked in the hall each year, generates more half a million dollars annually for the city of St. Petersburg, and the orchestra's annual 50,000 patrons equal the total of all other users' attendance combined.

With an orchestra season consisting of 29 different subscription programs presented at the Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg audiences support our orchestra in numbers unmatched by their counterparts in Tampa and Clearwater, both in terms of attendance and fundraising support.

As I write this, my wife and I are still relishing our memory of the Florida Orchestra's inspiring performance of Hello Dalí, an artistic collaboration between the orchestra and the new Salvador Dalí Museum in celebration of the museum's opening. We now look forward to the Florida Orchestra letting its hair down in an entertaining presentation of the Music of Queen: A Rock Symphony, a concert special being performed exclusively at the Mahaffey Theater.

Whatever the performance, from Beethoven to the Beatles, over the years our orchestra has proved that it is a versatile and talented group of musicians worthy of our support. Let us work together to provide the security and certainty a multiyear Mahaffey Theater agreement can bring. Let us assure that future generations will enjoy the quality of life a great symphony orchestra can deliver.

Thomas H. Farquhar is chairman of the Florida Orchestra board of directors.

Making the Mahaffey Theater sing 01/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 29, 2011 8:27pm]

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