ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Orchestra has named a new president and chief executive officer, and he might be the most versatile hire in the organization’s history.
Mark Cantrell, 51, currently serves as CEO of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, a professional ensemble in Madison, Wisc. Sometime before that, he piloted commuters to LaGuardia Airport in a twin-engine turboprop.
Cantrell also competed in several cross-country sled dog races for several years. The crisis management skills he learned — either in the air or in the wilderness — helped him hone his skills as an administrator.
“The largest assets I think I bring come from my days of being in the woods on frozen lakes when things go wrong, or flying airplanes when components break,” Cantrell said in an interview. “You have to be strategic and not be afraid to take risks. I tried to mitigate them so as not to take stupid risks.”
Throughout, he still played regular gigs as a bass trombonist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Ballet and the Boston Lyric Opera. Members of the orchestra’s search committee, who selected Cantrell in a unanimous vote, noted that versatility. But they liked his passion for music even more.
“Having played at the highest level with the Boston Symphony, trained as a pilot and run two orchestras, he really has seen every side of it,” said music director Michael Francis. “He is a kindred spirit, a natural and charismatic leader, an engaging speaker and undoubtedly an engaging leader.”
Cantrell succeeds Michael Pastreich, who in July announced his imminent resignation from the orchestra after 11 years as president and CEO.
“It’s a huge deal for us,” said Janet Paroo, who chairs the orchestra’s board of directors. “We wanted someone with a true passion for music, but also someone who wanted to reach communities. With his track record, Mark has proven that he understands the concept of a new American model for orchestras.”
That model, Paroo said, emphasizes finding more diverse audiences and not relying as much on dwindling government support.
“Across the orchestra world, we all feel there needs to be a more concerted effort to getting our concert halls funded without government funding,” she said.
Cantrell grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., the son of a tenant farmer. At age 7 he took a ride on a Cessna, studied the jigsaw patterns of apartment complexes and baseball parks and adobe hills in the distance. Somehow, he decided, he would get into the pilot’s seat and see the things he saw.
He played with the Boston Pops for many years. In the 1990s, Cantrell jumped into another longtime passion, accumulating and training sled dogs, usually a mix of Husky and hound or even German Shorthaired Pointer. Every winter, he took his dogs to Moosehead Lake in Maine, training for the Can-Am International Sled Dog Race, a 300-mile trek.
Alone with 16 dogs, he found peace.
“People think of snow and cold and bad things,” he said. “But if you have the right clothes, it’s really comfortable being out there. It’s pristine, not a lot of people. Not a lot of bugs, no bears and nothing to worry about. So peaceful.”
True, there were sometimes moose and they could threaten. And you have to make sure the dogs were getting enough water and that no one dog had to lead the team for too long. Oh, and you had to put cloth booties on their paws, all 64 of them. All part of a magical ride, Cantrell said.
Gas prices nearly doubled in 2000, the same year his eldest daughter was born. Cantrell's hobby had suddenly become more expensive, and his musician's pay wasn't going to support it anymore. He sold his dogs to kennels. Soon after, he was channeling his effort into getting a pilot’s license.
“I had to fill the void in my life,” he said.
By then, his professional path had also forked. The Boston Pops asked him to be a personnel manager, a point man in musicians’ collective bargaining agreement with the union. He played with the Pops or the Boston Symphony for several more years while training as a commercial pilot.
From 2006 to 2010, he piloted commuter flights, often chatting with passengers about the orchestras he had played in. He tried to show appreciation for baggage handlers, ground crews and especially flight attendants, “the most abused people on the planet,” Cantrell said.
One morning with freezing rain stands out, a January 2010 flight from Manchester, N.H., to New York’s LaGuardia. The 40-minute flight had just gotten off the ground when Cantrell saw yellow lights on the overhead panel, indicating that the plane’s de-icing equipment on one wing had failed.
As he was turning back to the airport, de-icing failed on the other wing. Ice not only weighs down a plane, Cantrell said — it also changes the shape of the wing.
“I could tell you stories you don’t want to hear as a passenger,” he said.
He insists flying a plane is easier than driving a car: “It’s about decision making.”
He left flying a couple of months later, and became executive director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra’s website describes its members as students, professionals and amateurs. Cantrell led a public school outreach and a social media campaign while founding a youth orchestra.
In 2013, he moved to an executive director’s position with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in Madison, Wisc., where he conducted similar outreach to minorities, the elderly and economically disadvantaged. Attendance grew by nearly one-third. The Florida Orchestra is significantly larger and fully professional, but neither Cantrell nor orchestra leaders are worried.
“They are fantastic,” Cantrell said. “The quality and the product are there. We just have to grow it.”
The skill he values most, perhaps, is listening. At about 10 p.m. one night, in the middle of a frozen lake, Cantrell's lead dog, Oreo, began to bear left.
“The trail didn’t go that way,” he said.
Since Oreo had been running for more than four hours in the lead, he figured she needed a break. He switched her out with Torque. The new leader tugged even more sharply to the left.
“I kept telling them, ‘No, go straight, go straight!’” Cantrell said.
Torque bore left anyway. Then Cantrell glanced to his right.
“Not 25 feet away, there was a huge seam of open water in the middle of this lake,” he said.
The comparison isn’t exact, but a key similarity has stayed with him.
“When you get in a stressful situation, you have to listen to what your team is telling you,” he said. “If you’re a dictatorial type of leader, you cannot understand what isn’t in your line of vision.”
Cantrell is married to Carolyn, an accomplished French horn player. Two daughters are in college and high school. The family will relocate to the Tampa Bay area.
The orchestra also has recent news about Francis. The music director accepted a position in Germany as principal conductor of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, where he is already an artist-in-residence. The job drew more than 100 applicants. Duties should take about eight to 12 weeks a year, Francis said, and are not as comprehensive as his role with the Florida Orchestra, where his contract runs through 2024.
“It’s a very complementary position to the position in Florida, but I’m not designing the whole program,” Francis said.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.