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The arts rise to challenging times

The Florida Orchestra, marking its 25th anniversary, is the cornerstone of the performing arts in the bay area.

Although it is struggling with financial troubles, the orchestra still provides the area's most consistently vital artistic experience, especially when music director Jahja Ling is on the podium. The orchestra performs in three halls _ the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa, Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

Highlights of the orchestra's 1992-93 masterworks season include performances of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast with the Master Chorale (Oct. 30-Nov. 1), Richard Strauss' tone poem Ein Heldenleben (Feb. 12-14), Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 (March 19-21) and the world premiere of a work by American composer Alvin Singleton (May 21-23).

Guest conductor Evans Haile leads the orchestra in a concert version of My Fair Lady (Nov. 19-21). The orchestra and Master Chorale will perform Handel's Messiah (Dec. 11-13) in a holiday concert, conducted by the chorus' new music director, Daniel Moe. A highlight of the pops series, conducted by Skitch Henderson, is an appearance by Maureen McGovern (Jan. 22-24).

The Sarasota Opera season, with four presentations in repertory, runs from Feb. 6 to March 14. Artistic director Victor DeRenzi, a Verdi specialist, opens the season with Il Trovatore. There's also an interesting Russian double bill, with Rachmaninoff's Francesca da Rimini and Iolanthe by Tchaikovsky.

The Tampa Bay Opera opens its season with Bizet's Carmen (Oct. 16, 23). Also on the schedule: Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus (Feb. 13, 15) and Turandot by Puccini (April 17, 20).

In chamber music, the University of South Florida Faculty Players give concerts at the Jaeb Theater at TBPAC, with the first Oct. 18. Eckerd College is presenting a Mendelssohn celebration that concludes with a Nov. 7 performance of the composer's Elijah for orchestra, chorus and soloists at First Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg.

Not long ago, theater in the bay area was on the upswing, with a host of up-and-coming companies. Then came the recession, and many of those theatrical outfits didn't make it. Here are some survivors.

American Stage, St. Petersburg, has an appealingly intimate space. Highlights are My Sister in This House by Wendy Kesselman (Jan. 15-Feb. 7) and Willy Russell's one-person play, Shirley Valentine (Feb. 19-March 14). The Merry Wives of Windsor is the Shakespeare in the park presentation (April 10-May 15).

The Asolo Theater, Sarasota, is in its second season under artistic director Margaret Booker. The schedule includes Substance of Fire by Jon Robin Baitz (Nov. 4-28), a new musical of Harold Arlen songs, Sweet & Hot (Jan. 16-Feb. 20), and Nora, Ingmar Bergman's adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House.

The Loft, Tampa, is funky and rude, an alternative space for theater, dance, music and performance art. The Loft-produced theater season includes Rescuing Marilyn, a politically incorrect farce about the vice president's wife by Kate Moira Ryan (Nov. 20-Dec. 13), and Nasty Little Secrets, Lanie Robertson's black comedy about gay men (May 21-June 13).

Two theaters have sought shelter in academe. Stageworks, Tampa, has a home at the University of Tampa's Falk Theater. Its season includes an adaptation of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory in December. Kestrel, St. Petersburg, is at Eckerd College's Bininger Theater, where the season features an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (Nov. 19-Dec. 19).

In dance, things don't come alive until the Nutcracker season. Clara, Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker Prince and all the rest are brought to life by Miami City Ballet at Ruth Eckerd Hall (Dec. 3-6); Dance Theater of Florida, featuring dancers from the Kirov Ballet, at Mahaffey Theater (Dec. 10-13, 17-20); Ballet Florida at TBPAC (Dec. 16-20); and Sarasota Ballet at the Sarasota Opera House (Dec. 18-21).

A new dance company, Bay Ballet Theater, starts with a holiday show Dec. 11-12 at Tampa Theater. Its inaugural season also includes Romeo & Juliet (Feb. 4-6 in Tampa, March 12-13 in St. Petersburg).

Perhaps the best dance event of the year is the weeklong Florida Dance Festival, held every June. There are classes, workshops and performances at the University of South Florida.

The bay area imports a lot of its culture, bringing in touring orchestras, dance companies and well-known performers to the arts centers. Some of the big names coming to Ruth Eckerd Hall are the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Nov. 6), Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov (Jan. 5), the Guarneri String Quartet (Feb. 17) and James Galway and Kazuhito Yamashita (March 17).

Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall has a similar sort of schedule, featuring Isaac Stern and Yefim Bronfman (Nov. 1), the Parsons Dance Company (Feb. 2), the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Feb. 12) and the Beaux Arts Trio (March 7).

Because the area's two other performing arts centers _ TBPAC and Bayfront Center, which includes Mahaffey _ have been hobbled by finances and management turnover, their schedules are not very ambitious.

TBPAC is banking on Broadway musicals such as The Will Rogers Follies (Dec. 29-Jan. 3) and The Secret Garden (Feb. 16-21).

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to Bayfront Jan. 5-10. The New World Symphony, with Mitch Miller, play at Mahaffey Jan. 6.