February 25, 2024
New batons: Orchestras shine with new music directors

Photo: Pedro Castellan/Florida Orchestra

Michael Francis, the new music director of the Florida Orchestra, has made Tampa Bay his principal residence.

Arts and Philanthropy in Florida

New batons: Orchestras shine with new music directors

The top five professional orchestras in Florida all have new music directors — and all face the same challenges in fundraising and engaging a new generation of concert-goers.

John Fleming | 6/26/2015


The Florida Orchestra has erased a $3-million debt and livened up its programming.

When Michael Francis planned his first program as music director of the Florida Orchestra in St. Petersburg in October, he included Aaron Copland's "Symphony No. 3" for some specific musical reasons.

"Of course it's the great American symphony," says Francis, an Englishman, who has woven an Americana theme throughout much of his programming for 2015-16. "But what I'm looking to do in the first year is to have different styles of pieces with which I can work with the orchestra to generate the right sound. The Copland is a great chance to bring out the organ-like quality of the music."

Francis is part of a changing of the musical guard in Florida. Over the past two years, all of the top five professional symphony orchestras in the state — along with the Florida Orchestra, they are the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, the Naples Philharmonic, the Sarasota Orchestra and the Orlando Philharmonic — have appointed new music directors.

Francis, 38, a one-time double bass player with the London Symphony Orchestra who turned to conducting, is the fourth music director in the 47- year history of the Florida Orchestra. It spent the past two seasons looking for a successor to Stefan Sanderling, a German conductor who clashed with the board and management over cost-cutting measures and resigned two years sooner than called for in his contract.

"The orchestra got exactly what it was looking for" in Francis, who is also the chief conductor and artistic adviser for the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, says Florida Orchestra CEO Michael Pastreich. "We're an orchestra that has had some challenges, and I think he's a healing personality. We're an organization that at points in our history has lacked discipline, and Michael is discipline incarnate. On top of all that, his musicianship is impeccable."

The Florida Orchestra had a long record of bumpy finances that started to change with the 2007 hiring of Pastreich, who moved from Chicago to take the job because he had in-laws in Florida and liked a challenge. The orchestra had long-term debt of $3 million, and when Pastreich presented an aggressive plan to tackle it, much of the board resisted. "Within a year, all but three board members were gone," he says. "But our next three chairs came on because of the plan."

Today, the debt is gone. Since Pastreich's arrival, the orchestra has raised more than $48 million for its annual fund, endowment and other campaigns. Last season, the orchestra had a $9.5-million budget.

The largest single piece of the budget is the musicians' labor contract. The minimum salary for musicians last season was $32,009 plus benefits for 27½ weeks of work. Virtually all the 66 full-time orchestra members are paid more than the minimum.

An important chapter in the Florida Orchestra's turnaround began in 2011, when the orchestra undertook a multi-year cultural exchange program with Cuba by sending a wind quintet to Havana for a concert and master classes. Last November, percussionists from the Cuban National Symphony were featured in a Florida Orchestra concert — and the orchestra has been in the vanguard of the Tampa Bay area's political support for restoring U.S. ties to the island nation.

Francis signed a three-year contract, with terms not disclosed. Sanderling was paid $306,645 in 2012, according to the orchestra's IRS return. The new music director will be on the podium with the Florida Orchestra for 11 weeks this coming season.

Like many successful conductors, Francis has multiple posts — along with leading his Swedish orchestra for another season, he is also music director of the Mainly Mozart Festival held in San Diego in June — and keeps up a busy guest conducting schedule. In the past year, he led the Dresden Philharmonic, the Oregon Symphony, the Seoul Philharmonic, the Cincinnati Symphony, the BBC Philharmonic and others.

"You want your music director to be out there," Pastreich says. "As he conducts more great orchestras, he can bring his understanding of their sound, their interpretations to our community."

Like all orchestras, the Florida orchestra plays in a world of changing entertainment options, an aging core audience and general lack of interest in classical music. Several years ago, the orchestra launched an accessibility initiative — a buzzword in symphony orchestra circles nowadays — that sharply reduced and simplified ticket prices to $45, $30 and $15. It developed a series of rock-themed concerts that will feature the music of Led Zeppelin, U2 and the Police this season.

Results? "Over the five-year period, our paid admissions went up 34%, and it wasn't just that we got people to come more often but that households served was up 67%, meaning that more different people came, not just that the same people were coming more often," Pastreich says.

The audience also has become more diverse. "The folks who are coming as a result of the lower priced tickets don't look like our regular audience. They're a bit less white, and they're drastically younger."

Along with masterworks programs, Francis' agenda this season includes a pops program of Hollywood music and a morning concert at which the audience is treated to free coffee and doughnuts. "As music director, it's essential that I be identified with the entire organization," Francis says. "I didn't want it to be seen that masterworks are high art that the music director does. It should be the whole thing."

New World Symphony

Perhaps the best known nationally among Florida's orchestras, the New World Symphony is an outlier. Unlike the others, it is not a professional orchestra. Instead it is made up of recent graduates from music conservatories who live in Miami Beach on fellowships provided by the symphony, which functions as a training ground for their orchestra careers. Richly endowed by the Arison family (Carnival Cruise Lines), it boasts a star founding music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, who's also music director of the San Francisco Symphony, and an innovative Frank Gehry-designed hall.

In April, Tilson Thomas, 70, and the young musicians gave a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, drawing praise from the New York Times: "As usual, the New World Symphony … sounded terrific, playing with impressive skill and confidence."

The New World Center, the only Gehry building in Florida, has been a game-changer for classical music. Opened in 2011, it is already famous for its free "wallcasts," with live video of selected concerts projected onto an outside wall of the six-story structure. An excellent "immersive" sound system is incorporated into the surrounding park, and enjoying music with a picnic under the moon over South Beach has become an iconic Miami experience. Inside, the 756-seat concert hall is a wonderfully vivid environment for performances.

The New World Symphony has had a big impact on the state's music scene. Since being founded 28 years ago, it has sent more than 900 musicians into the field, including many who've landed in Florida orchestras.

Naples Philharmonic

Before becoming music director in Naples, Andrey Boreyko headed orchestras in Germany, Canada and Belgium (he continues to lead the National Orchestra of Belgium), and he often guest-conducts major orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic. The Naples Philharmonic performs in a complex that was rebranded in 2013 as Artis- Naples. The facility includes a 1,425- seat concert hall, a 283-seat hall for chamber music and jazz, and the Baker Museum.

Boreyko, 57, who is Russian, relishes the cross-pollination of orchestra and museum programming. This past season, he led a concert on heroic themes (i.e., the Richard Strauss tone poem "Don Quixote" and Beethoven's "Violin Concerto" with renowned soloist James Ehnes) to complement the Baker exhibit "Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris." Attendance is strong for masterworks programs, averaging more than 90% of the hall's capacity.

Among Florida's top orchestras, Naples has the longest season for its musicians, who have a 39-week contract with base pay of about $51,000 for 51 full-time players. (Others are paid per service.) Tellingly, in affluent, conservative Naples, the Philharmonic musicians are not represented by the American Federation of Musicians, the union that handles most collective bargaining for symphony orchestra players in the United States.

The Vienna Philharmonic will be in residence in Naples to play two concerts in March — part of a three-year agreement with the elite Austrian orchestra to "reinforce our city as a cultural destination," says Artis-Naples CEO Kathleen van Bergen.

» Naples Philharmonic Highlight

March 17-19: Branford Marsalis is the soloist in the world premiere of Gabriel Prokofiev's "Saxophone Concerto," Andrey Boreyko conducting; $29-$105; (239) 597-1900 or (800) 597-1900; artisnaples.org

Pay to Play

In classical music, as in other fields, Florida is a low-wage state. Full-time musicians in the Naples Philharmonic — the best-paid musicians among those playing for orchestras in Florida — are paid $51,000 for a 39-week season. At major U.S. orchestras, the base salary tops $100,000 and is more than $150,000 at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Even the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, whose rocky finances in recent years reflect those of its hometown, pays musicians a minimum of $85,000 for a 40-week season. On any given night, the orchestras in Florida can play as well as their counterparts elsewhere, but, of course, the highly compensated orchestras are more consistent, their musicians can afford better instruments (no small thing), and the level of virtuosity is deeper.

Sarasota Orchestra

Since becoming CEO of the Sarasota Orchestra in 2001, Joe McKenna has dreamed of a new hall so the orchestra no longer needs to perform in its longtime venue, the multipurpose, purple-hued Van Wezel Hall on Sarasota's bayfront. Van Wezel's acoustics are less than wonderful, and the orchestra must compete with other performing arts organizations for dates in the hall. At one point, supporters had $25 million committed to seed a campaign for a new hall, but the effort was tabled when the recession hit in 2008.

McKenna is hoping the arrival of Anu Tali, 43, who just completed her first full season as music director, will revive those plans. Tali is from Estonia, and her tenure promises to be influenced by her roots in the Baltic country, which is a hotbed of illustrious contemporary composers, most prominently Arvo Part.

"I don't want to push Estonian music down people's throats, but I would like to include some of our jewels that will last and make a difference in the world's music," says Tali, who conducted the orchestra in Part's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" last winter. In 2016, the orchestra is bringing in Estonia's leading maestro, Neeme Jarvi, as a guest conductor.

Heading into its 67th season, Sarasota is the longest continuously performing orchestra in Florida. The budget has grown to $8.2 million under McKenna. "A new hall," he says, "is the next logical step for the musical evolution of this institution."

» Sarasota Orchestra Highlight

Nov. 6-8: Anu Tali conducts Shostakovich's "Fifth Symphony;" $30-$89; (941) 953-3434 or (866) 508-0611; sarasotaorchestra.org

Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra

For Courtney Lewis, one of the chief assets of the Jacksonville Symphony is its downtown home, Jacoby Hall, where the orchestra rehearses, performs concerts and has administrative offices. Renovated in 1997, the 1,800-seat hall has excellent acoustics and features a Casavant organ.

"The fact that the orchestra is able to rehearse and play in that hall at the same time, and that it has rights to it every single night of the year, and that everything is located in one place, the offices and support staff, makes for a great setup," says Lewis, 31, whose first season as Jacksonville's music director begins this fall. "I think that kind of thing really matters if you're trying to build an orchestra and develop a sound." For all its advantages, Jacoby has not often been full.

The orchestra went through a difficult period that included musician contract disputes and budget deficits that resulted in a debt of more than $3 million. The budget last season was about $9 million.

Things are looking up with the appointment of Lewis, who grew up in Northern Ireland and is assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and new CEO Robert Massey, recruited from Orchestra Iowa. "We're an institution in transition," Massey says. "We know that Courtney is going to have a huge impact, and that is part of a larger plan to build relevancy in the community and develop audiences."

» Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Highlight

Oct. 9-11: Courtney Lewis conducts Holst's "The Planets;" $25-$74; (904) 354-5547; jaxsymphony.org

Orlando Philharmonic

The Orlando Philharmonic has the newest music director of the major orchestras in Florida. Eric Jacobsen took over in May. Jacobsen, 32, a cellist as well as a conductor, is known for his work with such cutting-edge classical groups as the Knights and Brooklyn Rider and touring with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.

Jacobsen's somewhat unorthodox background seems like a good fit with the Orlando Philharmonic, the most populist of Florida's orchestras, with a $3.5-million budget and a shared musician-management governance structure. A quarter of board seats are held by musicians. The orchestra was founded in 1993 by musicians and grassroots community leaders in the wake of the folding of Orlando's long-troubled Florida Symphony Orchestra. "We were committed to never letting the community down again through deficits or work stoppages, and we've had 22 years of balanced budgets," Executive Director David Schillhammer says.

The philharmonic performs in the 1926-era Bob Carr Theater while awaiting a promised home at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2014 with a hall for Broadway and pop and a small theater. When public funding dried up during the recession, a third Phillips venue for the orchestra, opera and ballet was put on hold. It is projected to be built by 2019 or 2020.

In the meantime, the philharmonic raised $3.5 million to acquire the Plaza Live Theatre, a popular rock venue where the orchestra gives smaller, sometimes offbeat performances. It is renovating the theater to provide the orchestra with offices, storage space and a rehearsal studio.

» Orlando Philharmonic Highlight

Oct. 24-25: Eric Jacobsen conducts a new work for strings by Gabriel Kahane; single tickets start at $21; (407) 770-0071; orlandophil.org</p

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