Florida Orchestra hits the half-century mark on a triumphant note

The Florida Gulf Coast Symphony, pictured in October 1982 with conductor Irwin Hoffman, was formed when the St. Petersburg Symphony and the Tampa Philharmonic merged. It debuted on Nov. 14, 1968. In 1984, the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony became the Florida Orchestra.
The Florida Gulf Coast Symphony, pictured in October 1982 with conductor Irwin Hoffman, was formed when the St. Petersburg Symphony and the Tampa Philharmonic merged. It debuted on Nov. 14, 1968. In 1984, the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony became the Florida Orchestra.
Published Sep. 28, 2017

The Florida Orchestra began 50 years ago with a mixture of nervousness and pride, dreams of artistic excellence and an accompanying surge for the arts on both sides of Tampa Bay.

The decades since have seen improvements as the orchestra has survived through a series of financial crises. In recent years it has emerged in the black, with several new musicians and a music director who has lifted morale. It has become a leader of performing arts in the Tampa Bay area, a crown jewel in the state. Still, the orchestra struggles with paying musicians competitively, a problem it has carried since the very start.

The anniversary season begins Oct. 6 with the cacophonous Carmina Burana, in Carol Morsani Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. The concert travels the Mahaffey Theater where a new $1.8 million shell to improve sound has been installed, and to Ruth Eckerd Hall. Before the season ends, we'll see more outdoor and free concerts, more world-class musicians and a tribute to Prince. And no less an icon than Sting will take the stage at this year's fundraising gala (Dec. 9).

SCENES FROM THE 50TH SEASON: Florida Orchestra music director Michael Francis shares his thoughts on the classical lineup.

"We won't have another celebration like this for another 50 years," said music director Michael Francis. "This is a really great chance to solidify what we've been doing already, but also for engaging the audience in more complete ways, more exciting ways, more diverse ways, and showing the people of Tampa Bay how invaluable a modern symphony orchestra is for the cultural life and health and well-being of the society that it's in."

• • •

The forked roots of the Florida Orchestra start with two small community groups.

In St. Petersburg, members of the Carreno Music Club formed the St. Petersburg Symphony in 1950. Tampa's orchestra started with a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s, and became the Tampa Philharmonic in 1959.

After talks, the orchestras agreed to merge, to improve quality and avoid duplicating costs. That did not, however, mean cutting costs.

Mary Nicol Dodd, who was asked by the Florida Orchestra to compile a history of its first 25 years, had access to financial records and meeting minutes, as well as news clippings and interviews.

One of the more revealing documents from 1966 urged a combined "fully professional orchestra that can more fully meet the artistic and cultural needs of the two communities" — one that would allow musicians to devote time to rehearsal and performance without having to rely on outside income. "An orchestra of this type will not cost less than the present combined costs of the two operations," the study cautioned. "On the contrary, it will cost a great deal more."

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The orchestras tied a ceremonial knot Nov. 23, 1966, in the middle of the Tampa Bay, with boats supplied by a local builder and a cake from Wolfie's Restaurant. The new Florida Gulf Coast Symphony debuted on Nov. 14, 1968.

Sales grew in the 1970s. But the economy in the 1980s exacerbated tensions between music director Irwin Hoffman and musicians, who had formed a union and begun pressuring management for a raise and more hours. Musicians went on strike twice in the 1980s.

In 1984, the orchestra changed its name. It was now the Florida Orchestra.

• • •

Sales were spotty. A musicians' strike started Oct. 21, 1985, and lasted until New Year's.

Hoffman was nearing the end of his contract and by many accounts had lost the orchestra.

"Whoever is chosen to fill Hoffman's shoes will be taking over the post at a crucial juncture of the orchestra's history," Times critic Michael Fleming wrote in 1987. "Over the last decade, the Florida Orchestra has evolved from being a civic orchestra whose members relied on second jobs to make ends meet to a fully professional one."

The board chose Jahja Ling, a native of China, who had impressed as a guest conductor with Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 2. Would the new director be committed to growth, to cultivating relationships with large cities?

The choice proved critical for the right reasons. His genial manner contrasted with that of Hoffman, who "would call people out during rehearsals and have them stand up and play," said violinist Evelyn Pupello Moore, 70, an original orchestra member who retired in 2015. Nonetheless, it was Hoffman who made subsequent growth possible.

Under Ling, the orchestra performed at the 1991 Super Bowl, remembered for Whitney Houston's national anthem. But financial troubles started again as donations declined. The first few paychecks of the 1992-1993 season came up short.

The musicians kept playing. Timpanist John Bannon told the board, according to Dodd's report, that the shortages were painful, but that "at concerts, you will see pride, dedication and personal loyalty to Jahja Ling."

Ling gave the orchestra a boost in 1993 with a guest conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic. Attendance started going up again, and the orchestra closed its 25th season with a nearly balanced budget, a $3 million deficit notwithstanding. Ling left in 2002, succeeded by Stefan Sanderling. The German-born son of legendary conductor Kurt Sanderling started a cultural exchange with music institutions in Cuba.

The orchestra's finances, which dipped again in the mid-2000s, improved after the orchestra hired Michael Pastreich as president in 2007. Donations picked up, and the orchestra finished 2009 with a break-even season. In 2011, Pastreich spearheaded a reduction in ticket prices. The orchestra expanded its concerts to the likes of Led Zeppelin and Queen, movie scores and video games. The move echoed a nationwide shift among orchestras to reach a wider cross section of audiences. Paid attendance increased by 34 percent over five years.

But populist changes left one observer cold, namely Sanderling. He resigned in 2012, two years before his contract was up. While neither he nor the orchestra identified specific reasons for the parting, both hinted at irreconcilable differences.

Pastreich spoke of Sanderling's career "heading in a different direction." Sanderling was more blunt: "We had a divorce."

"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 told the Times two years later. "The role of an orchestra is not to be a service enterprise for a community."

• • •

The search took three years. But when leaders saw Francis conduct, they knew.

"He was absolutely magnificent," said Moore, the violinist. "He is very demanding of the orchestra. You certainly don't sit back and play your part. You sit up and lean into the music, and use a lot of bow and use a certain part of the string to get the most sound."

The orchestra has filled principal oboe and French horn positions (John Upton and David Smith), among others, and is bringing in world-class soloists. Many of the pianists, composers and singers Francis brings in are people he has worked with, either in the London Symphony Orchestra, where he played double bass, or by conducting in music festivals and concert halls in the United States and Europe.

Francis, former chief conductor and artistic adviser to the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, lives in Lutz with his wife, Cindy, and their daughter, Annabella, 2. He is fascinated by differences between cities. St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater, between Hillsborough and Pasco counties; and burgeoning opportunities for theater, opera and museums.

"I think Tampa Bay, and I really mean this genuinely, is one of the most exciting areas in North America," Francis said. "What I see is a genuine openness, a genuine optimism and I see tremendous growth."

Free concerts at shopping malls, nursing homes and even the airport accelerated. Francis doesn't believe reaching wider audiences clashes with the orchestra's mission to play the best music ever written.

"Performance in the concert hall is the absolute core of what we do," Francis said. "We want people to come and experience classical music heard in the hall designed for that."

Money is still an issue. The base musician salary when Moore retired was $32,000, with negotiations underway. That salary is now $35,500, plus benefits, for 31 weeks of work.

"For the talent in comparison with other orchestras of this quality, it's still low," Moore said.

Consider this: In 2016, members of the Pittsburgh Symphony went on strike rather than accept a 15 percent pay cut that would reduce base salary to $91,153. At the most elite level, musicians in the Chicago Symphony earn $159,016, about on par with the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, according to the Business Journals.

In Tampa Bay, teaching on the side or playing privately is the rule for musicians, not the exception. In that respect, the vision of the Florida Orchestra's founders 50 years ago remains unfulfilled.

Pastreich acknowledged the gap.

"There is no doubt that the orchestra does not pay the musicians what they deserve, what the board desires to pay or what is an orchestra's sufficient salary for this community," Pastreich said. "They go miles beyond the compensation they receive."

The current base pay is an increase from $24,648 for 26 weeks of work in the 2011-2012 season. Making the pay competitive can't be done all at once, Pastreich said.

"We would all love to see musicians paid quadruple next year," Pastreich said. "If we did that, it might prove to be unsustainable, and the crash might be worse than the benefits."

Francis has focused on bringing the musicians' skills to a higher level, something he swore to do on his first day of work. He believes that is happening, particularly in the string sections.

"You think of the sound of the strings, the commitment," he said. "Not just volume but the beauty, the lyricism, the balance. And also the balance through the brass, the beauty of the sound."

More than that, he said, is "that they will play each piece to the best of their ability. What I've been able to do is challenge them to go a bit further than they knew they could."

Contact Andrew Meacham at or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.