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With new grants, Florida Orchestra is increasing its presence around the state

Florida Orchestra Music Director Michael Francis conducts the Florida Orchestra in 2015 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. The orchestra, which has been more and more involved in the community, will take outreach efforts around the state thanks to help from grants. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times

Florida Orchestra Music Director Michael Francis conducts the Florida Orchestra in 2015 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. The orchestra, which has been more and more involved in the community, will take outreach efforts around the state thanks to help from grants. MONICA HERNDON | Times

ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Orchestra will take on an expanded presence throughout Florida, thanks to new funding that will send musicians to cities around the state.

Orchestra leaders stood before the St. Petersburg City Council Thursday and spoke of an ambitious state residency program funded by more than $700,000 in grant money from the state of Florida's Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture.

The program starts Friday with a Masterworks concert in Daytona Beach. Other concerts through March take the orchestra to schools and community orchestras in Volusia, Highlands and Alachua counties. Possible bookings next year include Panama City, Fort Pierce and Citrus County, orchestra president and CEO Michael Pastreich told a pleased council.

The orchestra got an additional boost via renovation grants, $1 million from the state and another $800,000 from the city of St. Petersburg, to rehab the Mahaffey Theater's acoustic shell. Work on the shell, which helps project sound into the hall, will begin in May.

Pastreich also announced a new hire by the orchestra. Violinist Kristin Baird will travel among Pinellas County schools, working with music directors and teachers. Among other things, he said, Baird will teach violin instruction to band leaders who might not be experienced with the instrument.

Baird, who comes from the New World Symphony's Miami Music Project where she coached students in grades 6 through 9, won the job after a national search. The Pinellas County School District will subcontract with her in August and September. During the orchestra's season, she will also perform as a violinist in a substitute role.

Pastreich said the orchestra was inspired to create the role by a program in Houston. But, he said, the Florida Orchestra is taking the concept of a working professional classical musician doubling as a public schools instructor to a new level.

"Nobody else has this," Pastreich said.

Between tablespoons of praise, a couple of council member recalled the orchestra's financially troubled past. Pastreich arrived in October 2007, in the midst of a labor dispute with musicians.

The orchestra has since paid off its debt, while the endowment has grown from $8 million in 2007 to $18 million. The orchestra lowered ticket prices in 2010 ($15 to $45 for all concerts in the masterworks and pops series), a move that boosted paid attendance by more than a third. In 2015, the orchestra reported a surplus in its $9.8 million operating budget.

"At the beginning I was questioning whether you would be able to pull all of this together," said councilman Jim Kennedy, "and somehow you have."

The driving force behind the orchestra's increased community outreach is music director Michael Francis, who has expanded the mission in his second full season with the orchestra. Francis has described the work as something the state's largest professional orchestra should be doing. Under the leadership of Francis, the orchestra has performed everywhere from International Plaza to Tampa International Airport to Moffitt Cancer Center.

Pastreich also told council members about another new venture, taking the orchestra to the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum for a series of Sunday afternoon, pay-what-you-can concerts. The chamber concerts start Jan. 22 and run through April at the museum in St. Petersburg.

The museum concerts bring the orchestra to residents who are "unlikely to come to the Mahaffey," Pastreich said. "We are capable of being agents of social change. If we don't harness that power effectively, we are not serving this community."

Camille Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony kicks off in Daytona Beach Friday. The concert features Greg Zelek on the organ and Grammy-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich playing Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole. The Masterworks concert wraps up at the Mahaffey on Saturday and Ruth Eckerd Hall Sunday.

The orchestra returns to the Daytona Beach area in February, when Francis will conduct the Volusia All-County Honors Orchestra in a side-by-side concert pairing orchestra musicians alongside students. He will conduct a round of concerts at elementary schools the next day. Side-by-side concerts give students a chance to absorb the approach of accomplished musicians playing the same instruments.

"Even just hearing what a professional musician sounds like when they're playing the same music that you're playing can completely change how the students approach things," said Kelly Smith, a spokeswoman for the orchestra. The orchestra then performs a separate piece.

The residency tour next heads to Avon Park in Highlands County for a Jan. 19 concert featuring works by Brahms, Mozart, Liszt and Mendelssohn, and more elementary school concerts Jan. 20. Musicians return March 11 for a side-by-side concert with the Highlands County Concert Band.

The third event, in Alachua County, takes the orchestra to side-by-side concerts with Alachua County orchestra students on March 6, and concerts for elementary students and patients at University of Florida Shands Hospital on March 7.

The orchestra already conducts school day concerts for local elementary school students plus open rehearsals for middle, high school and college students and advises students auditioning for all-state ensembles. For example, orchestra musicians on Jan. 24 will play a side-by-side with the Tampa Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, then do the same Jan. 26 with the Pinellas Youth Symphony.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

With new grants, Florida Orchestra is increasing its presence around the state 01/05/17 [Last modified: Thursday, January 5, 2017 5:11pm]
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