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Music takes center stage

Musicians get top-billing in the Encore Series, which opens its season at the Palladium tonight with the Florida Orchestra Chamber Players, and rightly so. The series provides an intimate setting for musicians many listeners know only from large-scale orchestra concerts.

"I think orchestragoers are looking for something a little less heavy, something a little offbeat," said Brent Douglas, the Palladium interim executive director who started the series four years ago.

But there's another person involved in the series equally as important to its success as the players. It's a Palladium board member and behind-the-scenes enthusiast, Dar Webb, whose St. Petersburg real estate company, Loftsville, puts up $15,000 to underwrite the series.

"The purpose of the series is to celebrate hometown heroes," Webb said. "That sounds hokey, but we're trying to provide a platform for the people who live in the community, who teach the kids, who play in the orchestra."

Webb, 56, brings a musicological background to her work with the series. She studied at Vassar and New York University to be a music historian and teacher, but stopped with a master's degree when she determined that her employment prospects were better in other fields. She ultimately ended up in the fast-growing computer industry, co-founding Best Software Inc., a Virginia company that started small and wound up with a market capitalization of $500-million.

She moved to St. Petersburg in 1991, when Best made an acquisition there. She retired from the company about five years ago and began Loftsville, which develops downtown townhouse and condominium projects, and got involved with the arts. She also is on the boards of the Arts Center of St. Petersburg and LiveArts Peninsula Foundation.

"Fundamentally I'm an entrepreneur," Webb said. "All of my activities in St. Pete have been entrepreneurial; just because they're nonprofits doesn't mean they didn't employ the same skill set. That's what I love, getting something started and going and self-sustaining and then moving on to something new."

Webb has sponsored the Encore Series for three seasons, and it has experienced healthy growth, but there was a steep learning curve.

"The first year I was a sponsor, the series didn't do very well," Webb said. "We had maybe 50, 60, 75 people coming to the concerts, and it didn't seem to me like I was getting much of a bang for my sponsorship buck. It was depressing in that hall, which seats 800. So after that I really committed to getting involved."

Last season, concert attendance averaged from 200 to 250. The largest crowd was 350 for the orchestra chamber players, who occupy principal chairs. "This year, I've got my fingers crossed, but I'm hoping we get as many as 500 for the first concert," Webb said.

Douglas said Webb's influence has been central to the success of the series. "Without her involvement, the series would still be floundering. It is unusual that she is so involved, but she also knows enough not to be overly involved."

A key factor in the series' development was Webb's decision to form an advisory committee, including musicians and composers, to screen artists and repertoire. For this season, the committee had 38 applicants to choose from for the eight concerts.

The series has been quite adventurous in combining new and unfamiliar music with standard works. This season, there will be premieres by bay area composers Mark Sforzini (also principal bassoon in the orchestra) and Vernon Taranto Jr., as well as a Florida premiere by Margaret Brouwer. Tonight's program, featuring various combinations of nine orchestra players, includes two Sforzini works plus the music of Nielsen and Spohr.

"Every program has something kind of off the beaten track," Webb said. "They're all brief programs, holding to about an hour. We're not trying to subject people to a long evening's music."

She has been pleasantly surprised by how some listeners, not classically trained, respond to new music. "I know a number of people, mainly men, who really like contemporary music and are just kind of ho-hum about the traditional repertoire," she said.

For example, she cites her husband, Clint Page, a jazz composer more given to works such as a suite of songs inspired by Raymond Chandler novels that he wrote than a string quartet. "He is an intuitive musician. He just hates it when I get excited about sonata form. He just likes to listen to music and think about it raw without bringing any cultural effect to it."

Encore concerts feature a preperformance reception and talk-back session afterward, with the players and a host. Tonight's host is the orchestra's associate conductor, Susan Haig. A new CD of selections from last year's concerts is on sale for $15.

Webb, whose academic interest was the development of tonality, dropped out of music entirely once she went into business.

"I really had put it behind me," she said. "I didn't make any attempt to keep up. The software company, for at least 10 years, was 24/7. It took my life. I didn't mind. It was fun, intellectually engrossing. I really recovered an interest in music when we moved down here. Attending Florida Orchestra concerts at Mahaffey (Theater), I thought I'd died and gone to heaven."

Now Webb likes to draw a parallel between early music and the go-go years of the computer business.

"You know, music is a huge organizational system," she said. "I was interested in the invention of that in music, and what kind of fascinated me after the fact was that I saw exactly the same process take place in the computer world from the '80s until I got out in the late '90s. Inventing syntax, inventing relationships, inventing languages, figuring out how to notate things. All music is a program that you realize on an instrument, very similar to computer technology."

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