MIAMI STILL NEEDS AN ORCHESTRA

By Lawrence Budmen 

The recent announcement by the Performing Arts Center of Greater Miami (PAC) that the august Cleveland Orchestra has signed a ten year contract that will bring the ensemble to Miami for an annual three week residency is major arts news. Much remains vague about the Clevelanders’ yearly visits. How many concerts will the orchestra give during its three weeks in Miami? How many separate programs (as opposed to repeats of the same program) will be presented? Will the music be restricted to standard repertoire or will new and unfamiliar works also be played? Will the Cleveland musicians visit local schools to present lecture-performances and coach music students? (They have already announced a working relationship with the musician training program at the New World Symphony but that is another matter.) 

Of course the Cleveland Orchestra has performed here numerous times under the auspices of Judy Drucker’s Concert Association. Indeed Drucker regularly brings stellar ensembles from around the globe to South Florida. Despite recent reports from Cleveland that the orchestra’s new Music Director Franz Welser Moist has not forged a strong rapport or musical profile with the orchestra, annual visits by this famous group will be an important addition to the area’s cultural life. Nevertheless a three week visit by an orchestra from another part of the country can not take the place of a year round symphonic ensemble. Miami still needs its own orchestra. 

The demise of the Florida Philharmonic in 2003 has left Miami without a professional symphonic organization. The Philharmonic was problematic from its inception. The orchestra played in numerous venues in three counties without any sense of community identification in any of them. Management and personnel problems only compounded the orchestra’s lack of communal ownership. Some arts patrons feel that the Philharmonic’s failure proves that Miami can not support an orchestra. The real problem is that Miami needs the right kind of orchestra. Over the past three decades orchestras have failed in Denver, Oklahoma City, Buffalo (several times), Kansas City, San Diego, Syracuse, and Orlando – only to rise again like the phoenix in stronger, smarter configurations. Besides the Florida Philharmonic five other orchestras collapsed in 2003. Already three of those orchestras (in San Antonio, Colorado Springs, and San Jose) have come back. In each case a better organized, more pragmatic organization has emerged. (Tulsa and Savannah are the only other cities that remain without orchestras after their ensembles folded in 2003.) 

In Boca Raton – one of the Philharmonic’s regular venues – a new ensemble will make its official debut next fall. The Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia is a smaller, smarter organization that will have strong ties to its community. Its organizers are doing everything right. This will be a chamber orchestra with a modest schedule – 5 concerts plus three lighter popular programs. A group of gifted young conductors and soloists has been engaged. The ensemble’s repertoire will be adventurous. Symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven will be coupled with scores by Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, George Walker, Antal Dorati, and Aaron Jay Kernis. The music of Dimitri Shostakovich will receive special attention.

This intelligently planned Boca Raton project could be a model for Miami. Any Miami orchestra, however, must reflect the community’s cultural diversity. In addition to good musicians and interesting programming (not just warhorses) a new orchestra will need a marketing staff that is truly dedicated to the cause. It is imperative that any new group’s marketing personnel really love classical music and care about the ensemble’s success. The management will need to make contact with the area’s African-American and Latin professional organizations – a potential audience that the Philharmonic’s generic marketing department could not identify. While maintaining the highest musical standards, the orchestra’s choice of artists and repertoire should likewise reflect Miami’s multiculturalism. An area that the Florida Philharmonic totally neglected is Young People’s Concerts – programs for high school age audiences. This group is an organization’s real potential audience. In the 1950’s and 1960’s Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic (which were nationally televised) inspired tens of thousands to embrace the music of the masters. Any new Miami orchestra must devote its attention to winning new converts among the area’s youth. An effective program will need a conductor-host who can equal Bernstein’s charisma, erudition, and showmanship. By all reports Rob Kapilow (who has done this type of program with orchestras across the nation) is that kind of great communicator. His youth programs must be part of any new orchestra’s agenda. While performing at the new PAC may sound enticing, the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall might be a better, user friendly venue for a new ensemble.

There are more than enough gifted conductors around to lead several seasons of concerts. Some have strong South Florida ties. William Noll, a former assistant to Robert Shaw at the Atlanta Symphony, lives in Naples. Noll conducted superbly at the Miami International Piano Festival’s recent Liszt extravaganza. Former Miamian Cal Stewart Kellogg has direct symphonic and operatic performances throughout the United States and Europe. (Why has this gifted conductor not been heard in his hometown in almost two decades?) Doesn’t the University of Miami’s Thomas Sleeper (who has done fine work here for the past decade with highly variable student ensembles) deserve to be heard with a fully professional orchestra? The brilliant American conductor Stefan Lano (who has conducted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera) is eager to mount an American symphonic podium. Brazil’s John Neschling (a first rate orchestra builder) has made a strong impression in his Miami appearances. It would be wonderful to see former Florida Philharmonic Resident Conductor Duilio Dobrin back in South Florida. There are countless other gifted maestros who can make a new ensemble come alive.

The repertoire played by visiting orchestras is usually limited to the same thirty works. As a world class community Miami deserves better. Indeed a flexible symphonic ensemble that serves Miami’s multiethnic constituencies can create a new model for the nation’s cultural life. Just over three decades ago Atlanta did not have a fully professional orchestra. Today it has a world class ensemble which has won several Grammy Awards for its recordings. If Atlanta can accomplish that, so can Miami. With intelligent planning that does not overreach or overspend, a new orchestra can serve Miami in a manner that celebrates cultural harmony and brings the glories of great music to new audiences. 


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