Quirky, knowledgeable Florida Orchestra librarian to lead Major Orchestra Librarians' Association

Published May 19, 2012

Ella Fredrickson has an awesome range of musical knowledge. As principal librarian of the Florida Orchestra, it's her job to know the scores right down to every last note and tempo marking, but her musical intelligence is still unusually impressive.

"Ah, the trumpet solo in Mahler Five," Fredrickson said recently, while working backstage during a break in orchestra rehearsal and hearing someone play the passage out on the stage. "I always know who in the orchestra is practicing for an audition."

The opening solo in Mahler's Symphony No. 5 is a standard excerpt that trumpeters have to play in orchestra auditions.

Last weekend, Fredrickson, 50, became president of the Major Orchestra Librarians' Association at its 30th annual meeting, held in New Orleans. It's an important honor to head the organization, which represents 270 member symphonic, opera, ballet and conservatory orchestras on four continents. Librarians deal with all sorts of musical issues, from preparation of scores for performance to cutting-edge technology to copyright and licensing.

With the possible exception of music director Stefan Sanderling, Fredrickson knows the music in a Florida Orchestra season better than anyone. She is responsible for the preparation of it all, from masterworks to pops to coffee concerts and everything in between.

"We tried to count it all up once, and it came to something like 21,000 pages in a season," said Fredrickson, who has been with the orchestra since 1995.

But for all her immersion in symphonic repertoire, Fredrickson is no classical geek. The librarian listens to Radiohead and Frank Zappa while going over scores, and she knows how to play the theremin, an electronic instrument favored for spooky musical effects, as in the score for the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still or the TV theme music of Dark Shadows.

"It's all Marin's fault," said Fredrickson, referring to Marin Alsop, the pioneering conductor who is music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, Calif., as well as music director of the Baltimore Symphony. Fredrickson has been Alsop's personal librarian since 1990 and heads out to Cabrillo every summer. The two women met when Alsop was guest conducting for the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, where Fredrickson was founding librarian.

It was Alsop who encouraged Fredrickson to learn how to play the theremin part for several pieces at the festival, including David Del Tredici's Dracula and John Corigliano's The Mannheim Rocket. She has played the oddball instrument with the Colorado Symphony and the National Arts Center Orchestra of Ottawa.

Fredrickson is also a cellist. With a performance degree from the University of Miami, she is a good enough player to sit in with the orchestra's cello section occasionally, playing in pops concerts such as Michael Cavanaugh's recent Billy Joel show and the Queen concert last year.

Often, an orchestra librarian is called upon to solve problems. This month, when the scores of several works from Cuba arrived in bad shape, with many illegible markings and notes, Fredrickson and assistant librarian Sarah Logan Smith had to create playable parts, a task that involved much painstaking attention to detail and endless copying. "We jammed about 40 hours of work into three days, Sarah and me," she said. "It helps that I love my job."

Fredrickson's high level of energy, passion and ingenuity inspires Bob Devin Jones to liken her to a famous comic-strip character. "She's like Lucy in Peanuts," said Jones, artistic director of the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg. "She's just so intrepid, always juggling several plates at the same time and getting things done."

Jones and Fredrickson put together a series of "intimate collaborations" at the studio that draw good crowds for programs of chamber music, poetry, visual arts and other activity, pegged to orchestra concerts. This month's collaboration was on the program led by Enrique Perez Mesa, with the Cuban maestro on hand.

"Ella gets around," Jones said. "She's an ambassador for the orchestra."

Her husband, Jeff Fredrickson, is food and beverage director of the TradeWinds resort in St. Pete Beach. They have three children.

What does someone with such encyclopedic grasp of music consider her favorite piece? "I want to do the mix tape for my funeral," she said. "One piece I've always gravitated toward is Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht."

Orchestra departures

Several musicians will be playing their final performances as full-time members of the Florida Orchestra in next weekend's masterworks concerts that feature Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.

Principal oboe Katherine Young Steele, who has been with the orchestra since 2007, is leaving to take the same position with the Milwaukee Symphony. She was a member of the wind quintet that gave a concert in Havana last fall as part of the orchestra's cultural exchange with Cuba.

Three longtime players are also departing. Bass clarinet player Vicki Newcomb, an orchestra member for 21 years, accepted a buyout to make a career change and go to nursing school. Zsuzsanna Varosy, a member of the cello section since 1977, also took a buyout. Violinist Thomas Kennedy is retiring after 32 years with the orchestra.

Cellist Sasha von Dassow left the orchestra earlier in the season.

Contract negotiations

Representatives of Florida Orchestra management and the American Federation of Musicians have met during May to negotiate a new musicians' contract; the current one expires at the end of the summer. The number of weeks in the contract has been whittled down in recent years, with the roster of full-time players reduced. An agreement could be reached this month, but in the past, talks have tended to go down to the wire, with contracts ratified just before the start of a season. The orchestra's 2012-13 season opens with concerts Oct. 12-14.

John Fleming can be reached at or (727) 893-8716.