TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OF MUSIC AND DANCE IN SOUTH FLORIDA

By Lawrence Budmen

Music and dance have undergone a profound metamorphosis in South Florida in the quarter century since Howard Sallus had the vision to create a major entertainment weekly newspaper. In retrospect 1982 proved to be a watershed year for the arts.

The summer of that year brought the ambitious New World Festival. A month long gathering of world renowned artists from multiple disciplines, the Festival featured new music by such Pulitzer Prize winning composers as Ned Rorem, Robert Ward, and Norman Dello-Joio. Despite some artistic miscalculations the Festival was a harbinger of what creative miracles could be accomplished. The project gave Miami its first fully professional ballet company. Under the direction of American choreographer Norbert Vesak (former director of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet) the New World Ballet offered new work by the distinguished South American ballet master Vicente Nebrada and Royal Ballet star Lynn Seymour. While the company did not endure, the brilliant ensemble and vibrant choreography would prove a fountainhead for the creation of Miami City Ballet four years later. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, New World Ballet’s conductor was Akira Endo who would mount the podium for MCB for seven seasons.) 

The 1986 debut of Edward Villella’s superb company would unleash a celebration of world class dance. Specializing in the masterworks of George Balanchine – an important part of Villella’s artistic heritage – the company immediately fielded a terrific crop of world class dancers. Such audience favorites as Illiana Lopez, Janet Sussman, Franklin Gamero, Yannis Pikiris, and David Palmer lit up the stage with their vibrant performances. The company’s original Resident Choreographer Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros created a series of indelible works that reflected Miami’s vibrant multicultural pulse. Gamonet’s surging Transtangos (set to the inimitable “nueva tango” music of Astor Piazzolla) became a Miami City Ballet signature piece. The company’s dancers became ambassadors for South Florida as MCB toured the nation and the world to critical and public acclaim.

After several seasons Pikiris and Palmer left the company to pursue other projects internationally. In the 1990’s they would return to Miami to create their own company - Maximum Dance. With former Miami City Ballet dancers and gifted artists from other companies, Maximum Dance became a lively chamber ballet that showcased cutting edge choreography by creative artists from the modern dance world. Gamonet also returned to Miami to launch his own 21st century company. In an unpredictable scenario Ballet Gamonet merged with Maximum Dance and Gamonet’s choreographic magic again excited South Florida audiences. Earlier this year Pikiris and Palmer left the new company to return to Miami City Ballet where they will be in charge of an ambitious new program featuring the work of contemporary choreographers. The result is that the South Florida dance scene is now truly an abundance of riches! 

The local orchestral situation remains unsettled. In 1980 the old Florida Philharmonic (formerly Miami Philharmonic) was in the last throes of an artistic downward spiral. Once bright with promise (under the charismatic direction of French conductor Alain Lombard) the ensemble produced uneven results under several failed music directorships. In 1982 a bitter strike by the musicians provided the orchestra’s final nail in the coffin. Four years later cultural leaders from Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties conceived a new regional ensemble. The new Florida Philharmonic was launched with high hopes and great fanfare. James Judd, an ambitious young British conductor (and former assistant to Lorin Maazel and Claudio Abbado) was named Music Director in 1987. The initial concerts were quite remarkable. Judd’s enthusiasm and panache were contagious. Memorable performances of symphonies by Beethoven and Mahler promised great things to come. In 1991 the elegant Broward Center for the Performing Arts opened and provided a beautiful home base for the tri-county orchestra. The early 1990’s even found the Florida Philharmonic with its own short lived national radio broadcast series. 

Despite these impressive artistic accomplishments the orchestra never established a sense of ownership in South Florida. Playing in seven venues in three counties, the Florida Philharmonic lived a nomadic existence. The orchestra never strongly identified with any of the communities in which it played. People did not view the Florida Philharmonic as “their orchestra.” That problem was compounded by poor management, fiscal irresponsibility, inept marketing, and friction and distrust between Judd and the musicians. In 2001 Judd was forced out by a new board of directors. By spring 2003 the Florida Philharmonic filed for bankruptcy and liquidated its assets. Despite artistic success, the dream of a regional orchestra proved elusive. Many of the FPO musicians have left the state. Others compete for local freelance positions. One ray of hope looms on the horizon. The debut of the new Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia heralds a thoughtfully conceived organization under experienced management and artistic direction. One of the chamber orchestra’s founders and prime movers is Marshall Turkin, former Executive Director of the Pittsburgh and Detroit Symphonies. The recent appointment of renowned pianist-conductor Philippe Entremont as Artistic Advisor promises high musical standards. Perhaps this locally oriented, artistically strong ensemble can serve as a model for similar organizations in the region. 

One orchestral project that has taken South Florida (and much of the world) by storm is the New World Symphony. Founded in 1987 by Carnival Cruise magnet Ted Arison, the training ensemble brings gifted musicians from the nation’s top conservatories to Miami Beach for two year residencies. The NWS extends the educational and training mission of such part time, summer ensembles as the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (in Lenox, Massachusetts). Arison astutely hired the brilliant American conductor Michael Tilson Thomas as Artistic Director. A protégé of the legendary Leonard Bernstein, Tilson Thomas brought the perfect combination of charisma and intellectual rigor to the new organization. Arison purchased and renovated the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach as a home for the orchestra. Tilson Thomas’s innovative programming has cast the spotlight on such modern masters as Berio, Messiaen, and Ligeti. World class guest conductors and soloists have brought excitement to the Lincoln Road auditorium. The New World Symphony has extensively toured Europe and Latin America and has triumphed in the elite environs of New York’s Carnegie Hall. The exhilaration of a NWS concert is a tribute to the energy, tremendous talent, and sheer enthusiasm of some of America’s most gifted young musicians. 

The greatest orchestral ensembles and musical superstars from around the globe have graced Miami and Ft. Lauderdale stages thanks to the Concert Association of Florida and its indefatigable director Judy Drucker. An extension of the concert series Drucker founded at Miami Beach’s Temple Beth Shalom, the Concert Association has presented a cornucopia of the true greats of the music world (both past and present) – Kissin, Horowitz, Stern, Perlman, Pavarotti, Domingo, Barenboim, Dutoit, Jarvi, Gergiev, Solti, Abbado Ax, Galway, Shaham, Ashkenazy, Bartoli. The list is endless! More than a few unforgettable musical nights have been under the auspices of the Concert Association! 

A new era looms on the horizon as the Miami Performing Arts Center is set to open in the fall of 2006. The recent announcement of the merger between the Center and the Concert Association gives Drucker virtual control of classical offerings in the new Concert Hall – one of three auditoriums that will comprise the center. She has announced that she will double the number of offerings. (Whether Drucker will continue to present concerts at the Broward Center remains unresolved.) The Miami PAC has signed a ten year contract with the Cleveland Orchestra. That great ensemble will perform three weeks of concerts at the PAC each season. Between the Cleveland residency and Drucker’s attractions the Miami PAC will become a musical powerhouse!

The New World Symphony will also play several concerts (with high profile soloists) at the Center. The New World, however, has even greater ambitions. The organization plans to build a campus in Miami Beach to enhance its educational mission and provide a more suitable and flexible acoustical environment for its concerts. The NWS has retained the renowned California architect Frank Gehry to design a new concert hall with adjacent rehearsal space, classrooms, and internet and recording facilities. (Gehry’s Disney Hall in Los Angeles has received unanimous raves from music critics and audiences alike.) New concert formats will be developed for the complex. The NWS once again will be on the artistic cutting edge of the 21st century!

The Opera House at the Miami Performing Arts Center will become the home of Florida Grand Opera (as well as Miami City Ballet). The venerable FGO has gone through several changes and upheavals in the past quarter century. The early 1980’s concluded the 20 year reign of the late Robert Herman as General Director. While basically conservative in his repertoire choices, Herman attracted many of the opera world’s superstars. (He had been Assistant Manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera under Rudolf Bing.) The late Ruth Welting’s glittering Lucia di Lammermoor (in 1982) and Andrea Chenier with Placido Domingo in superb form (in 1984) capped an often vocally impressive era. Herman was succeeded by Robert Heuer. The gifted conductor Willie Anthony Waters (a Miami native) became Artistic Director. Innovation was the order of the day. The American premieres of Rossini’s Bianca e Faliero and Alberto Franchetti’s Christopher Columbus brought music critics from around the world to Miami. The company received much acclaim. Productions of American operas by Carlisle Floyd and Stephen Paulus produced theatrical excitement on the Dade County Auditorium stage. Heuer and Waters also presented Miami’s first Wagner (Die Walkurie) and Strauss (Salome) operas with world class casts. The operas of Mozart became a staple of the FPO repertoire. 

By the mid 1990’s Waters was replaced by the Florida Philharmonic’s James Judd. Judd’s brief but memorable artistic directorship was marked by a stunning production of Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw (with the mesmerizing Helen Donath) and a stellar version of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. The great American soprano Deborah Voigt sang Ariadne – her signature role – and would play her first Tosca and Lady Macbeth for FGO. Two stunning Baroque productions – Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea and Handel’s Julius Cesar – brought South Florida’s operatic century to an imposing conclusion. Recent opera productions have been far less impressive. Leading roles have too often been under cast with singers of limited vocal resources. A new era looms on the horizon for Miami’s opera company. For the initial season at the PAC Heuer promises Verdi’s truly grand Aida (a great opener), Strauss’s masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier, and a specially commissioned work – a setting of Anna Karenina by American composer Daniel Carlson. With state of the art stage facilities and a large orchestra pit, the new Opera House promises exciting times ahead for FGO. 

At a time when recital series are disappearing across the United States, Sunday Afternoons of Music is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Founded by Doreen Marx at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest the same year that Entertainment News and Views published its initial edition, SAM now presents world class instrumental and vocal recitals and top notch chamber music events at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. This series presented the very first performance of the award winning Miami String Quartet. The great American soprano Benita Valente made her only South Florida appearance at SAM. Marx booked such patrician artists as sopranos Dawn Upshaw and Isabel Bayrakdarian, pianist Richard Goode, violist Paul Neubauer, and violinist Vadim Repin, and the Pacifica String Quartet early in their careers. She eagerly promoted the works of the late Miami based composer Maurice Gardner, a singularly original creative voice. Such musical legends as pianist Manahem Pressler, violinists Joseph Silverstein and Oscar Shumsky, and cellist Janos Starker have made rare solo appearances in South Florida at SAM. Today Sunday Afternoons of Music stands as South Florida’s premier recital series. 

One of South Florida’s most exciting musical events debuted in 1998. The Miami International Piano Festival was to have long ranging artistic resonance far beyond the stage of the Lincoln Theater – its initial venue. Under the artistic direction of Giselle Brodsky, the festival has discovered and presented piano virtuosos from around the globe. Brodsky, a veritable dynamo, is a Manhattan School of Music graduate and a long time South Florida pedagogue. Several of the event’s luminaries have received international acclaim. Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski won the prestigious Gilmore Award. Russia’s Konstantin Lifschitz has appeared with such leading ensembles as the Chicago Symphony, London Symphony, and the Berlin Philharmonic. Perhaps some of Brodsky’s greatest discoveries have been the Romanian dynamo Mihaela Ursuleasa, Russian firebrand Denis Burstein, and three remarkable Italian pianists – Francesco Libetta, Pietro De Maria, and Emanuele Arciuli. Not content to rest on her impressive laurels, Brodsky has added a mini-festival at the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater. In 2005 the Miami International Piano Festival Orchestra made its debut under the baton of veteran American conductor William Noll. This may be the genesis of a new orchestra for Miami. In 2003 and 2005 the Festival presented a summer season in the southern Italian city of Lecce. Posters with the Miami skyline adorned the relaxed city streets in the province of Puglia. The Festival’s scope was international indeed! Giselle Brodsky is a dreamer, an idealist, and a true artistic catalyst for South Florida! 

All of this artistic activity has dovetailed the founding of the Murray Dranoff International Piano Competition (in 1987) – the only duo-piano competition in the world. The Miami Bach Society was founded in the mid 1980’s as a concert venue for Baroque music. Today its transformed Tropical Baroque Festival turns Coral Gables into a mecca of Baroque performance and scholarship. The Chopin Foundation continues to encourage gifted young American pianists through the American Chopin Competition every five years. Despite problems with the orchestral situation, Giselle Brodsky’s dreams are well on the way to reality. Music and dance in South Florida are about to enter a new golden age!
 


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