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Stefan Sanderling talks music, art and Italy before final Florida Orchestra performance

“I don’t think about legacy,” says Stefan Sanderling, conductor emeritus and artistic adviser of the Florida Orchestra. “You know, legacy sounds like you’re going to die. And I’m not even 50 and I plan to make it to 60 at least. So I don’t think about legacy. I know that I tried many things, some of them very successful and some of them were not. I am proud of the successful achievements and I am sad and disappointed about the things I have not achieved yet. I don’t think about it as much. And I don’t think it makes sense to think about it.”
Published Mar. 19, 2014

Stefan Sanderling will probably never conduct the Florida Orchestra again. So in his last appearance with the outfit he called home for 11 years, one he left quite unceremoniously, he is sending a conspicuous message.

He has chosen to conduct a repertoire of Bartok, Sibelius and a world premiere by composer David Rogers this weekend. The works encapsulate what Sanderling believes a professional orchestra should be, what he thinks many orchestras have ceased to be.

Not easy. Not necessarily adored by masses. Not always the most popular.

"Where orchestras need to be very careful is not to go for the simple and easy way in defining their role and thinking if they just play popular music they will become popular," Sanderling said.

He said this, and many long and pointed ideas, over a pot of peppermint tea at the Kahwa coffee shop in St. Petersburg, his eyeglasses changing shades in the Florida sun.

It has been nearly two years since Sanderling left his job as music director of the Florida Orchestra — two years before he was supposed to leave. It sent the orchestra into a premature search for a new music director that continues to this day.

And it left questions. Would the unusual move impact his reputation in classical music? What ills were lying beneath the separation?

Sanderling remains unfazed. He talks about the split still in general terms, never pointing fingers at any one person. He does not want to start fights, he said, because the orchestra is too important for that. He is pragmatic about the move, showing an almost religious devotion to his position:

Not challenging listeners is akin to not teaching students something hard because you don't feel like fighting.

"A decision has been made, and I don't feel sorry and I don't feel happy," he said. "I am without feelings. This is what it is."

This return performance is by contract. But he is still eager to conduct, still has fondness for the musicians.

"Look," he said. "We had a divorce two years ago. And I think it was a divorce without any war of roses. And we had children involved and the musicians are the children, and as in any divorce — I've never been divorced so I don't know — there's always good moments and bad moments. The bad moment was that I lost my children. I lost my musicians, so it is great to see them. I'm looking forward to it. I feel very close to them, and I think we have achieved something over 10, 11 years which has been remarkable."

Sanderling has had distance from the situation, both mental and physical. He and his wife, Sarasota Orchestra cellist Isabelle Sanderling-Besançon, spent some months living in Florence, Italy. He conducted a few concerts in Europe, but mostly he learned about late Gothic paintings and the Renaissance, and his wife studied Byzantine mosaics. They enjoyed life.

"My life was every week, every week, every week conducting," he said. "And it was really a present from God that all of a sudden I didn't have that anymore so these things were possible."

He still works as music director of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, is still open to jobs with new orchestras, though he has no immediate plans to leave St. Petersburg. He still holds titles of conductor emeritus and artistic adviser with the Florida Orchestra.

But ask him about his involvement with the Florida Orchestra, and he simply says, "I wish them luck."

Sanderling, 49, was born in Germany. His father was legendary conductor Kurt Sanderling. He joined the Florida Orchestra as music director in the 2003-04 season, and in his tenure was credited with having high standards and fostering many successes, including the initiation of a cultural exchange with Cuba.

But the orchestra was in financial turmoil and contract negotiations when Michael Pastreich came on board as president in 2007. Pastreich was trying to get the orchestra out of a financial hole and make it profitable, and one way was to make the orchestra more appealing to people outside the core audience, to play music people liked to hear.

The orchestra dramatically lowered ticket prices and introduced interactive offers like on-stage seating for the audience. In addition to the masterworks classical series, it expanded its pops series and started featuring music from video games and movies, everything from a Charlie Chaplin film score to the music of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Queen. The forthcoming season features a mashup of Brahms and Radiohead.

Accessibility is not the orchestra's job, Sanderling contends.

"It is not the role of an orchestra to be popular, and it is not the role of an orchestra to provide easy, accessible art," he said. "The role of an orchestra is, in a certain way, to be an avant-garde institution. And avant-garde is a very difficult term, you know? The question is how much 'avant' it is. And how much you have to be ahead of everybody so that people still can follow you, they still see you. ...

"And I believe that the deeper reason for an orchestra to exist is not to be a service enterprise for a community, because — I hate this phrase, because this phrase just sounds so great that nobody even questions what it actually is. But what an orchestra is is a curator of an art form, and the art form is symphonic music. And if you don't curate symphonic music anymore, you as an organization will not remain relevant."

The "popular" repertoire of classical music keeps shrinking, he said, not by act of God, but function of choices.

"We reduced it. We reduced it by going for Beethoven 5, which is a great piece. But if you play it six times in a row, it is a less good piece. Because then people say I've heard it. And people have lost the ability to be curious and have lost the ability to listen to something what is not in a very simple scheme. ...

"And some orchestras share my vision and some others don't, and that's the beauty of it. I don't argue. I am so convinced. And every year that I see what miserable states some organizations are in convinces me more that we do something fundamentally wrong by trying to go the easy way."

The time in Italy gave him a new appreciation for his life's work, he said. He's been studying Michelangelo, Leonardo, the House of Medici, the explosion of art in the Renaissance. There will always be art, he said, but artists have a responsibility to steer their work into the consciousness of the mercenaries.

And artists need time to live.

"Music is not knowing what a C major chord is," he said. "Music is not knowing when Bach lived. Music is finding relevance of certain sounds of, certain melodies of, certain developments in music, and for this you have to know the world, you have to understand life. If you stop understanding life, there is no reason for you to make music."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes on Twitter.

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