Tuesday, August 14, 2018

As its last original musician retires, the Florida Orchestra looks to new beginnings

TAMPA — In 1964, Evelyn Pupello was a shy 16-year-old who lived through the strings of her violin.

That timidity showed when she auditioned for the Tampa Philharmonic. Maestro Alfredo Antonini, a legendary conductor whose resume included the original score to Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, was not impressed.

"He told me to go home and eat more meat and potatoes," she said. "I guess I had a pretty weak tone."

So she studied. She practiced. She strengthened her sound. The next year, she got in.

It was the start of a career like few others.

As the orchestra closes its season this weekend, Pupello, 67, will retire. Her departure after 50 years playing violin in the orchestra halls of Tampa Bay is symbolic of a swath of change now under way at the orchestra. Pupello is one of six musicians retiring in 2015, each there more than three decades. Throw in a long-open oboe chair and a new conductor at the podium, and the orchestra is looking at its biggest roster overhaul in years.

Pupello, though, has outlasted everyone. She is the last remaining charter member of the Florida Orchestra. She has, in fact, been playing professionally for three years longer than the orchestra has existed.

• • •

Tampa Bay's cultural landscape looks nothing like it did a half century ago.

Pupello grew up going to concerts at McKay Auditorium on the campus of the University of Tampa. One of the Philharmonic's charter members, Evelyn Jewell, was her first teacher.

When the Philharmonic merged with the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra in 1968, Pupello, then still a student at the University of South Florida, was among those who not only made the cut, but stuck around year after year.

"In the early years of the orchestra, a third of the orchestra was new," she said. "The pay was very, very low then, and people were off looking for better jobs."

To some degree, that's still true. Between practice and performance the job easily takes 40 hours per week, but most orchestra musicians don't make a lot of money. Florida Orchestra musicians' base salary, last negotiated in 2012, was $32,000 for the 2014-15 season. Negotiations for next season's base salary are ongoing.

Pupello estimates the most she ever made in a year was $30,000 to $40,000, and there were cash-strapped weeks when she didn't get paid at all. Like most musicians, she augmented her income through lessons and side gigs.

"It's a very rugged schedule to keep up with," said Pupello, whose eyesight has been clouded by glaucoma. "Even some of the young people in the orchestra complain about it."

The latest turnover coincides with this fall's arrival of new music director Michael Francis, 38. Only the orchestra's fourth conductor ever, he is expected to infuse the 47-year-old organization with a shot of youthful energy.

He'll have a rare opportunity to mold the orchestra in his vision: Each open chair at the orchestra draws applications from about 80 of the best classical musicians in the country. Seven new musicians out of 66 is a big number, one orchestra officials believe will have an immediate impact.

Orchestra leaders anticipate an even busier schedule once Francis arrives — "ever more energetic, more riveting masterworks performances," said president and CEO Michael Pastreich, plus more community-centric performances at places like All Children's Hospital or Moffitt Cancer Center.

"It's going to take a lot of energy of everybody in this organization as they rethink what's expected of them," Pastreich said. "It's a time when people say, 'Am I ready for this?' "

While he acknowledges that older orchestra members may feel daunted by the prospect of an increased workload, Pastreich emphasizes that "energetic" is not a euphemism for "young."

"The Florida Orchestra is full of youthful energy, and that has nothing to do with the age of a musician," he said. "That has to do with the energy on the stage."

• • •

Pupello's life has not always been easy. Though her parents supported her career, they did not fully understand it; her mother rarely came to her concerts. Her younger brother suffered brain damage shortly after birth and was severely handicapped until his death at 27.

"He loved when I practiced violin," she said. "He would come to where I was, and sit with me while I played."

She has been married three times, the last to a man who died after a battle with Alzheimer's. She has survived two cancers — breast and lymphoma in her taste buds.

Music was always a constant. If she wasn't performing in a symphony, she was booking gigs in trios or quartets, or teaching. She is an avowed supporter and teacher of the Suzuki method, which encourages young children to learn music largely by ear. Music, she believes, is crucial to children's educational development, especially when it comes to math. (There might be something to that. Her three children grew up playing the violin; two are now CPAs and the third is an actuary.)

The last half-century brought too many memorable performances to count. Collaborations with Jack Benny, Victor Borge, the Smothers Brothers, virtuoso guitarist Andres Segovia. She played on Whitney Houston's famed Super Bowl XXV Star-Spangled Banner. In January, she shared the stage with Yo-Yo Ma.

"Such perfection," she said of Ma's performance. "How am I allowed to sit here and listen to this magnificent music?"

But one of her favorite memories, she said, was a May 2014 coffee concert at the Mahaffey Theater, with Francis conducting Beethoven's iconic Symphony No. 5.

"Everybody knows it: Da-da-da-dunn," Pupello said. "Each of us have played it many, many times, starting with our youth orchestra days and high school.

"I'm telling you, when we played it, it was something different. He just brought so much more out of it. Not only did we feel it, but the audience reacted."

It almost made her want to stay on one more year, just to play a few more shows with Francis.

• • •

Replenishing energy each year has been an ongoing struggle for all classical institutions. Eighty percent of the Florida Orchestra's audience is 55 or older, but the past five years have brought an unprecedented push to get younger.

In 2011, orchestra leaders slashed ticket prices and began embracing concerts aimed at more diverse demographics — symphonic tributes to video games, or a modern mash-up of Brahms and Radiohead. In 2012 they launched the Wolf Gang, a young professionals' group that now has 326 members. This year brought new initiatives geared toward families with young children.

"The folks who buy these tickets don't look like our regular audience," Pastreich said. "They're a little bit less white, and they're drastically younger."

Pupello has witnessed this stylistic change gradually over the decades, but never has it been this prominent.

"There was a time," she said, "when people boycotted us because we were playing too much 20th century music." Thirty or 40 years ago, modern music was "very autumnal and very dark," she said. Now, "it's got a lot of rhythm to it. People like that. And it's got a nice melody to it, so you can actually go out whistling to it."

Pupello and other retiring orchestra musicians say they don't feel forced out by the changing times. Some have even stayed on a little longer just to reach the Francis transition.

The orchestra has made it easier for musicians to ease into life off the stage. For the second straight year, retirees will receive a retirement bonus courtesy of a patron who Pastreich said wanted to make sure veteran musicians could leave the organization in comfort. The package, Pupello said, made her decision easier.

In retirement, she'll teach more lessons, and she'll perform here and there in public. Her beach-nuptials days are probably behind her — "I'm tired of doing beach weddings and having sand in my hair" — but she hopes to put together a small chamber group.

She won't feel the full absence of the orchestra in her life until the fall season, when her fellow musicians embark on their new beginnings. But in the end, it came down to ending her career on a note of grace and symmetry.

"Fifty," she said, "is a nice, round number."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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