Maestro Makeover Puts New Face on Florida Orchestras

Anu Tali made her debut this month as music director of the Sarasota Orchestra. (Kadri Tali)
Estonian conductor Anu Tali made her debut this month as music director of the Sarasota Orchestra. (Kadri Tali)
By John Fleming

SARASOTA, Fla. – For her debut as music director of the Sarasota Orchestra on Nov. 8 at Van Wezel Hall, Anu Tali opened the program with a tone poem called Koit (“Dawn”) by Estonian composer Heino Eller. Not only did the piece herald the “dawning” of a new era for the 65-year-old orchestra, Florida’s oldest. It also was an indication that Tali, born in Tallinn, Estonia, plans to bring a musical taste of her homeland, a hotbed of illustrious contemporary composers such as Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis, and Erkki-Sven Tüür.

Anu Tali studied with Jorma Panula in Helsinki. (Lilian Merila)
Anu Tali studied with Jorma Panula in Helsinki. (Lilian Merila)

Just as the opening concert – the first of three played for full houses – marked the arrival of a new leader on Florida’s Gulf Coast, it also signaled a changing of the guard throughout the state. Two other orchestras, the Florida Orchestra in the Tampa Bay area and the Jacksonville Symphony, are in the midst of music director searches, while the Naples Philharmonic completed its search in April when it appointed Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko as music director-designate.

“It’s not unusual that a lot of orchestras are looking for a music director at the same time, but it’s an interesting coincidence for them all to be in Florida,” said Michael Pastreich, CEO of the Florida Orchestra.

Sarasota, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, and Naples have Florida’s largest professional orchestras, with budgets ranging roughly from $7 million to $10 million. Naples provides the longest season for its musicians, who have a 39-week contract with base pay of just under $50,000 for the 49 full-time players (others are paid per service). The New World Symphony, with music director Michael Tilson Thomas and a Frank Gehry-designed hall in Miami Beach, is the most famous ensemble in the state, but it is made up of recent conservatory graduates in pre-professional training for orchestra careers.

Frank Gehry's New World Symphony in Miami Beach. (Claudia Uribe)
Frank Gehry’s New World Symphony in Miami Beach. (Claudia Uribe)

In Sarasota, Tali succeeded Leif Bjaland, who was music director of the Sarasota Orchestra (formerly the Florida West Coast Symphony) for 15 years. After guest conducting engagements in 2011 and last winter, Tali was chosen by a search committee made up of musicians, board and staff members, and community leaders, and signed a three-year contract. She will spend at least 12 weeks a season in Sarasota and be on the podium for most of the seven masterworks programs. The orchestra also plays with Sarasota Ballet and was in the pit this fall for Sarasota Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus.

Tali, 41, who studied at the Estonian Academy of Music, the St. Petersburg State Conservatory in Russia and the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, is also chief conductor of the Nordic Symphony, which she and her twin sister, Kadri, founded in 1997. Anu Tali made a solid impression in her first concert as Sarasota’s music director, though Eller’s brief curtain raiser, however thematically suitable, proved to be rather innocuous, all romantic strings and tender little wind solos, its shimmering palette of colors suggesting an arc from dawn to dusk. The Baltic country’s musical culture was more vividly represented last January, when Tali, as guest conductor of the program that was pivotal in her winning over the orchestra, led Tormis’ tautly exciting Overture No. 2.

Last weekend, Lukáš Vondrácêk was the piano soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Hunched intently over the keyboard, he gave a bravura performance of this perennial crowd-pleaser, expertly negotiating each variation. Tali exercised admirable restraint in holding the orchestra back in the lush melody that has inspired many a Hollywood composer.

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 occupied the second half of the program, and it brought out the tidy, detail-oriented side of the diminutive music director. In her approach, there was a place for everything and everything was in its place, not necessarily a bad thing in the masterfully tangled web of the opening movement but too predictable in the precise, somewhat finicky reading she brought to it. Better was the lyrical wind choir that began the slow movement. After loosening the reins to allow the orchestra to play out in the dance rhythms of the scherzo, she drew a strong performance from the violins in the tragic finale.

Andrey Boreyko to bow Jan. 3-4 as Naples music director-designate
The Naples Philharmonic's Andrey Boreko. (Naples Philharmonic)
The Naples Philharmonic’s Andrey Boreyko. (Naples Philharmonic)

In Naples, Boreyko was appointed on the strength of a program last season that featured jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis in concertos by Glazunov and Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis, followed by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Dreams”). With a five-year contract, the 56-year-old will conduct a single masterworks program this season (Jan. 3-4) and then take over in 2014-15, while also continuing as music director of the National Orchestra of Belgium.

The Philharmonic is part of an arts complex that includes a 1,457-seat concert hall, a 300-seat hall for chamber music, and the Baker Museum. The organization also presents an array of pop, Broadway shows, touring orchestras, and a series by Miami City Ballet. Under past music directors Christopher Seaman and Jorge Mester, the orchestra stuck to conservative repertoire designed to appeal to affluent Naples. Attendance is good, with concerts playing to more than 85 percent of capacity for the masterworks and pops series.

Opened in 1989, the complex was long known as the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, or simply “the Phil,” until the name was changed in April to Artis-Naples. The move was designed, in part, to appeal to younger audiences and show that its offerings include more than the symphony orchestra. But it caused a flap, which has included picketing of a board meeting by protesters with “Save the Phil” signs. “We wanted one united name under which all our activities could live,” said Kathleen van Bergen, who became CEO of the complex in 2011, succeeding its formidable founder, Myra Janco Daniels. “We expected some pushback. It’s a vocal minority. Our numbers are up.” According to van Bergen, combined subscription sales from the Masterworks, Pops, and Jazz series increased 24 percent from last year.

Despite the center’s rebranding, the Philharmonic is not likely to get short shrift under van Bergen, a former vice president of artistic planning for the St. Louis and Philadelphia orchestras. “Everyone is searching for someone who can inspire from the podium, who can communicate the role of culture in our region,” she said. “We imagine Andrey not only conducting masterworks but also ballet and opera. Jazz is a big influence on him. He believes that something very exciting can be crafted here.”

Candidate Teddy Abrams, spirited out of state
Teddy Abrams, music director, Louisville Orchestra
Teddy Abrams heads to the Louisville Orchestra next season.

With multiple music director searches under way in Florida and elsewhere, there is bound to be some disappointment when another orchestra appoints a prospective candidate. This fall, Teddy Abrams, a promising 26-year-old who is assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony, led both the Jacksonville Symphony and Florida Orchestra, but whatever impact he made was probably rendered moot in October, when he became music director-designate of the Louisville Orchestra.

“These searches take such a long time, and everyone you are looking at is being looked at by other people as well,” said Mary Patton, co-chair of the Jacksonville search committee. “It’s pretty much a given that you’re going to lose a few along the way.”

Jacksonville Symphony cuts the field to eight
Fabio Mechetti is stepping down in Jacksonville.
Fabio Mechetti, Jacksonville’s music director since 1999, is departing.

In Jacksonville, the search is being done as a sort of contest, with marketing that portrays all eight guest conductors this season as candidates to succeed Fabio Mechetti, who has been music director since 1999. Along with Abrams, the lineup includes Ward Stare, Robert Moody, Andrew Grams, Perry So, André Raphel, Courtney Lewis, and Shizuo Kuwahara. “The week they come to visit is pretty grueling,” said Patton, describing a round of activity for the conductors besides rehearsals and concerts that includes radio interviews, meetings with political, business and arts leaders, receptions with donors, and so on.

The Jacksonville Symphony has gone through a rocky period, with acrimonious negotiations over the latest musicians’ contract, a two-year agreement signed in March that cut base pay by 11 percent to $35,700 for 34 weeks, and long-term debt reported to be as much as $3 million. Attendance at 1,900-seat Jacoby Hall has been averaging about 50 percent of capacity. “That’s the crux of the problem,” Patton said. “We have a really good orchestra, Jacoby is a terrific hall, but on very few occasions do we fill the hall. We need someone who can bring back excitement to the orchestra.”

Florida Orchestra plays it close to the vest

The Florida Orchestra is taking a different tack in its search by not explicitly identifying guest conductors as candidates to be music director. “Nobody wants to be known as the conductor who doesn’t get the job,” Pastreich said. The search began in earnest in 2012-13 after music director Stefan Sanderling announced he was leaving the orchestra two years sooner than planned. Though Sanderling’s departure was not especially happy – he clashed with the board and management over cost-cutting measures – his ten-year tenure had notable achievements, such as an ongoing cultural exchange with the musical institutions of Cuba and an all-Delius CD on the Naxos label.

The Florida Orchestra is searching for a successor to Stefan Sanderling.
The Florida Orchestra is looking for a successor to Stefan Sanderling.

“We think this orchestra is in a position where the next music director can have a big success here,” Pastreich said. Unlike the state’s other orchestras, the Florida Orchestra doesn’t have a home hall but rehearses and performs its concerts in three different venues in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater. “Playing in the three halls has not been an issue for our guest conductors,” said Pastreich.

The Florida Orchestra’s ten-member search committee is equally divided between musicians and board members. By the end of this season, the orchestra will have played masterworks programs under almost two dozen guest conductors since Sanderling’s exit. They range from up-and-coming young conductors – Tito Muñoz, Joshua Weilerstein, Cristian Macelaru, and Michael Francis are among those who have been well-received – to such a seasoned hand as Seattle Symphony conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz.

Board chair Tom Farquhar hears from audience members about which one might make the best music director. “They often change their minds,” he said at a community forum on the search. “People seem to really like the most recent guest conductor they’ve seen.”

John Fleming covered the Florida classical music scene for 22 years as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.