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Orchestrating a casual mood

Thomas Wilkins is the Florida Orchestra's point man on the brave new frontier of classical music. As resident conductor, Wilkins leads only two masterworks programs a season; the rest are reserved for music director Jahja Ling and guest conductors.

Instead, Wilkins conducts lower-profile concerts, as well as some of the more offbeat and unorthodox programing that the orchestra tries on for size in its never-ending quest for new audiences.

"I think we're searching for ears, we're searching for listeners," Wilkins says. "Just because the audience is changing as we approach the 21st century, it doesn't make that which we offer any less significant. The music is still powerful. The music is still relevant. The music still has impact."

This week, Wilkins and the orchestra inaugurate two mini-series that delve into repertoire or formats that are slightly off the beaten track, and they'll be playing in different venues.

Thursday, in the first of two "On the Fringe" programs this season, the venue is the ornate, old Tampa Theatre, and the music ranges from Baroque to modern. As a curtain raiser, there's the Sinfonia for Double Orchestra (Op. 18, No. 1) by Johann Christian Bach _ one of Johann Sebastian Bach's 20 children, three of whom were important composers in their own right _ followed by Elgar's Serenade for strings. The second half of the program is taken up by L'Histoire du Soldat (History of a Soldier), Stravinsky's ballet suite for seven instruments and two actors about a Russian soldier who sells his soul to the devil.

"It's the kind of program where people may not like everything, but they come expecting to hear something they haven't heard before," Wilkins says. "The whole purpose is to present music we don't get to do a lot and people don't get to hear a lot."

Does Wilkins imagine an ideal listener for Thursday's lineup? "It would be a person who certainly has his or her own prejudices about what kind of music they like, but at the same time it's a person who has a musically adventurous spirit," he says.

On Friday, the orchestra moves to the Coliseum in St. Petersburg, where it will play the first of two concerts in the "Blue Jeans Classics" series with a potpourri of pieces organized around a rhythm theme, from Bernstein's Candide overture to Shostakovich's orchestration of Tea for Two to Leroy Anderson's Blue Tango.

The orchestra will not be on the Coliseum stage but will be set up in the middle of the dance floor. "I really didn't want this to look like a concert, so I have the orchestra on the floor and the audience is going to wrap around us, seated at tables," Wilkins says. "Some of the audience will actually be up in the balcony and can look down at the orchestra. There will be munchies and a cash bar."

Wilkins helped initiate a similar series with the Richmond, Va., symphony, in a rock 'n' roll club called the Flood Zone. He frets that the Coliseum may be too cavernous to create a sense of intimacy between orchestra and audience.

"The concert is performed without intermission, and then people just hang out afterwards and get to know each other, musicians and listeners," he says. "I think the space in Richmond was better because it was a little cozier. The big challenge in the Coliseum is going to be making it feel cozy."

To some extent, the new series are also the orchestra's version of that old adage that if you're handed lemons, make lemonade. The orchestra has trouble getting the dates it wants in preferred venues such as the large concert hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, which is increasingly booked with more commercial presentations, such as the long-running The Phantom of the Opera. The orchestra must seek new places to play when it can't get into the conventional venues.

However, Wilkins says programing, not marketing, was uppermost in his mind in planning the series at Tampa Theatre. "My desire to do these concerts is born out of the desire to offer alternative kinds of entertainment from the orchestra. I think it's cool just to play in the Tampa Theatre. I wouldn't want to program what we're doing there in another hall. The driving force is the fact of seeing the orchestra in a place where we're not normally accustomed to being seen."

As new ventures, this week's concerts represent uncharted territory for ticket sales. "We have no idea who will be coming," Wilkins says. "It could be young people, it could be old people, it could be anybody. The only demographic I'm targeting is people who want to hear the Florida Orchestra someplace else other than the concert hall."