The Florida Orchestra: The Rock Stars In Our Back Yard
The Florida Orchestra’s history is rooted on both sides of Tampa Bay. More than five decades ago on a boat in the middle of the bay, the St. Petersburg Symphony and the Tampa Philharmonic came together in a “marriage” ceremony. Incorporated in 1967, the orchestra first performed in 1968 as the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony before changing its name to The Florida Orchestra in 1984. Today, it is the state’s largest professional orchestra with 67 full-time professional musicians. Their mission is to inspire, entertain and educate a wide and diverse audience with the unique experience of live symphonic music, ensuring that future generations will continue to enjoy this legacy that so magnificently celebrates the human spirit. As we entered the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, President & CEO Mark Cantrell (see left), Music Director Michael Francis and the Board of Directors realized the importance of their work, and instead of taking a back seat to ride out the pandemic, decided that TFO needed to lean in to find innovative ways to continue their mission.
First and foremost, the safety of their musicians, staff, and audience was TFO’s primary concern. On March 13, 2020, they made the call to start canceling concerts for the 2019-2020 season. Committed to finding a way to bring music to the community, TFO’s world-class musicians started making performance videos from home for the TFO at Home series, including several “virtual orchestra” performances that knit together individual videos into a symphony. You can still see them for free at FloridaOrchestra.org, along with education videos and on-demand concerts, by clicking here.
The Florida Orchestra was determined to bring live music back to Tampa Bay last fall. As we learned more about the COVID-19 virus, TFO decided to put together a task force and consult an epidemiologist to explore how they could perform for a live audience. This task force established a set of guidelines that TFO followed rigorously, including performing shorter concerts with no intermission to protect the audience; limiting the number of musicians on stage; regular COVID testing for all musicians and support staff; and performing for smaller audiences exclusively at the Mahaffey Theater in Downtown St. Pete to protect all parties involved. By following these guidelines and more, TFO was able to perform 86 concerts for live audiences safely for the 2020-21 season, which ended in May. While the limited number of musicians allowed on stage posed a challenge at first, Cantrell and Music Director Michael Francis (see right), who previously played double bass for the London Symphony Orchestra, turned it into an opportunity. They decided to start the Soundwave series, performing pieces that were meant for smaller ensembles. Pieces performed include Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which was originally meant for 13 instrumentalists; Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in a special arrangement for only 14 players; as well as the Schwantner Percussion Concerto with Principal Percussionist John Shaw as soloist. To make sure everyone could experience the music, even those not ready for the concert hall, TFO offered free live-stream and on-demand concerts via video for the first time. You can watch all 12 digital concerts and bring the beauty of the orchestra into your home anytime by clicking here.
In addition to live concerts, another way that TFO completes their mission of providing the unique experience of live symphonic music to a wide and diverse audience is through their education efforts. TFO Strings for Kids program provides free violin lessons to kids who might not have the opportunity any other way. The program is offered in partnership with the University Area CDC’s Prodigy® Cultural Arts Program in Hillsborough and the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. The lessons continued virtually last season and are back in-person this summer. TFO also continued the Teaching Artist program virtually and in person. In this program, TFO musicians work with Pinellas County music teachers to help them teach students how to play stringed instruments. TFO is passionate about this work in the community because TFO recognizes that music is the best way to teach empathy, a vital characteristic following a worldwide pandemic. Not only do they introduce kids to music through education, but they also do special Youth and Family concerts with music that students will recognize and offer free tickets to kids ages 5-18 for all classical Masterworks concerts.
Now that the world is beginning to open up again, what can you expect to see from TFO? They are currently planning to come back in full force for the 2021-2022 season, performing at all three of their regular venues: The Mahaffey Theater, Ruth Eckerd Hall, and the Straz Center. During this season, they will perform their classical Masterworks series and morning Coffee Concert series, both of which include a free Pre-concert Conversation with musicians and conductors that takes a deep dive into the stories behind the music, starting one hour before the performance. They will also continue their Raymond James Pops series, which features the best of Broadway, movie and popular music. You can see their full schedule here. TFO will also bring back their free Pops in the Park performance in Vinoy Park (See below), so even if you are hesitant about the full-attendance indoor concerts, you can still enjoy a beautiful TFO concert.
We encourage you all to enjoy the magnificent work of the rock stars in our back yard at The Florida Orchestra during the upcoming 2021-2022 season. We are so lucky to have these amazing musicians in our area, and even luckier that they are so dedicated to bringing the gift of music to this community in a multitude of ways. If you enjoy the work of The Florida Orchestra, especially during this past year of turmoil, we encourage you to donate to the organization so they can continue to carry out their work in the community. For more information, click here to visit their website.