It was 22 years ago that I moved from Atlanta to become the Tampa Bay Times performing arts critic, and now the curtain is coming down on what has been one of the most enjoyable, educational and gratifying experiences in my career as a journalist. I turned 66 in January and decided it was about time to see what it would be like not to have deadlines — at least the newspaper kind — hanging over me.
I also realized things had come full circle for me here. At my first Florida Orchestra concert in September 1991, I tagged along with Jim Harper, the former music critic, who wrote the review that night and showed me the ropes. The highlight of the concert was Stravinsky's modernist masterpiece The Rite of Spring. And a month ago when I covered my last orchestra concert in this job, the centerpiece of the program was . . . The Rite of Spring. I can't think of a better performance to go out on. My last day is June 30.
The orchestra was a constant preoccupation through the years. For a long time, it was barely holding on as an institution, plagued with financial and management woes, and I found myself leaning a lot on skills from my previous job as managing editor and editor of Georgia Trend, a monthly business magazine owned by Times Publishing Co.
When I came to the Tampa Bay area, I thought I was finally free of having to crunch numbers, but here I was spending as much time on the business side of the orchestra as the music. In Atlanta, I had spent six years editing and writing stories about corporations like Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, and none of them compared in complexity with trying to understand the operation of a symphony orchestra. Perhaps the best thing about retirement is that never again will I have to sweat over a stack of orchestra tax returns trying to parse the impact of long-term debt on the bottom line, while also factoring in yet another renegotiation of the musicians' contract.
Today the orchestra is in a much different place. It is, of course, still a precarious enterprise — how could it not be, given the arcane nature of classical music in 21st century culture? — but the organization is intelligently managed and the community's support seems stronger than ever. Many news organizations have given up on meaningful arts coverage these days, and the Times deserves credit for its role in the orchestra's survival saga, because editors allowed me to keep its artistic efforts firmly in the metro news columns, giving reviews of concerts the same importance and status as reports on murder trials and politics and ball games. The best advocacy for the arts is to treat them seriously as central to the community's identity and not as some occasional diversion.
I wrote thousands of reviews, including more than 300 of Florida Orchestra concerts, most of those produced in about an hour, and I must admit that I was rarely happy with my work when I read the next morning's paper. You'd think it would get to be a snap over the years, but it's the writer's fate to be dissatisfied, and variables always popped up to complicate the task. If I had a lot of space to fill, I might not have much to say, and then when I did come out of a concert inspired, inevitably there would be a shortage of space and I would have to resort to a sort of haiku to try to get across my thoughts in 7 column inches. Thank heavens for the shortcuts I discovered to take through the bowels of the Straz Center to hasten my dash across the parking lot to the Times bureau in Tampa.
I won't miss the tight deadlines — oh, maybe the adrenaline rush a little — but I will miss some of the rituals. Since most orchestra concerts I reviewed took place on Friday nights, on the drive home I would catch the last half-hour of the blues show of DJ "Soulman" Bob Scheir on WMNF. After listening intently to Bruckner or Brahms, Little Milton and Bobby "Blue" Bland sounded just right.
I always found theater easier to write about than classical music, probably because there is a text, not to mention actors speaking it, sets and costumes and all the rest, which gives you more material to work with than just the sounds (and score) of a symphony or string quartet. Dance is another matter, probably the most abstract and therefore hardest performance to write about. Certainly, I went to many poor shows — and poorly attended: at a one-man performance art piece, my wife, Judi, and I were the only people in the audience — but I never took great glee in writing pans, which felt like shooting fish in a barrel. Far and away the most common sort of review I ended up writing was mixed, liking aspects of a performance but also finding fault.
Of course, this job involves much more than just writing reviews, and in reporting and doing interviews I often found myself dealing with people in the arts whose work I had criticized, which could lead to an uncomfortable moment or two. Then I also heard from readers, who tend to pounce when you make a mistake. My personal record was three corrections for a review I wrote of The Marriage of Figaro at Sarasota Opera.
I have had many grand experiences in this job — much travel, to performances around the United States and in Europe; and a frequency of Broadway and other assignments in New York to the extent that I had a comfortable routine there, always staying at the same Upper West Side hotel and having my morning coffee and bagel at the same diner. But I think the more mundane things are what I will miss the most, like the raffish hours, always working nights and weekends, or the endless flow of information that crossed my desk and computer.
I learned, for example, never to say no to a press agent offering a phone interview — "phoners," they're called — with an artist, usually in connection with some upcoming show with tickets to sell, because you never knew what absurdity might occur. Liza Minnelli fell asleep, or passed out, in the middle of my call to her. Robert Goulet put me on his Christmas card list after an interview recalling how he messed up The Star-Spangled Banner at a heavyweight fight. An impatient Marilyn Horne told me I didn't know very much about Rossini.
I'm looking forward to going to performances where I don't have to take notes in the dark. Let me leave with three of the things I'll be following most closely in the bay area.
• Who will be the Florida Orchestra's next music director? Of the guest conductors who might be candidates that I saw this past season, the most impressive were Gerard Schwarz, Joshua Weilerstein and Tito Muñoz.
• St. Petersburg could be on the verge of becoming a theater center. American Stage, the community's longtime standby, has been joined by a fresh new professional company, Freefall Theatre, along with other organizations of a theatrical bent, like the [email protected], to establish a promising foundation.
• Opera is hot. Twenty-two years ago, I would have never dreamed that I would now have three excellent, and quite different, opera companies to attend: Sarasota Opera, Opera Tampa and St. Petersburg Opera.
So, come the end of this month, I'll be gone from the Times but not too far from the news of the performing arts. I want to learn how these stories play out from my successor, who has not been named yet. I promise not to pounce on any mistakes. I know how easy they are to make.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.