Turnaround story: Florida Orchestra changes up concerts, music

The Florida Orchestra recently kicked off its latest season with a packed house at the Straz Center in downtown Tampa. New music director Michael Francis may have something to do with all the buzz.

"There's a tremendous increase in excitement; a new energy on stage that you can feel in the halls," says longtime TFO patron Maria Cantonis, 67, who lives in Belleair. "It's just a wonderful vibe."

This is quite the departure from TFO of seasons past. Eight years ago, the orchestra was in the throes of steadily declining ticket sales, waning interest from the community and massive debt to the tune of $3 million. It wasn't until Michael Pastreich, the organization's CEO and president, took the reins back in 2007 that TFO began to turn around.

Tackling the fledgling orchestra's problems head on, he created a punch list of sorts that laid out all the things TFO had to do to stay afloat (like reducing expenses while increasing revenue). Taking that to donors, Pastreich then made a promise: they only had to pay their pledge if the orchestra pulled through with their end of the bargain.

As fans of the orchestra know, the story has a happy ending. The move resulted in $17.3 million in donations over the following three years, including $8 million in onetime funding to enact their plan. This, in addition to more strategic fundraising, is what ultimately laid the groundwork for real growth. Since then, TFO has lowered its ticket prices, simplified its packages, and diversified its programming. At the same time, the orchestra has also wiped out its debt while growing its endowment to over $17 million. 

Pastreich has invested heavily in The Florida Orchestra's subscription series, which he says is the organization's "economic engine."

"Our vision became much more focused around building great subscription concerts," says Pastreich, who earned a BFA in silversmithing from Washington University in 1990. "And part of our vision was to create an orchestra that our community would be confident would be here forever; an orchestra that our community had intrinsic pride in."

Fresh approach to sharing music

The series covers a wide array of musical ground -- such as Broadway tunes, rock and roll, and classical 19th-century favorites. The orchestra has also ventured into video game concerts, attracting crowds that have surpassed 1,000 people.

"It is definitely exciting to hear the music of Led Zeppelin playing in a symphonic rock program!" says Cantonis of the new lineups.

Michael Francis is carrying that excitement over to the musicians. For violinist Mary Corbett, who's been with TFO since the 1989-90 season, the new tradition of making a European entrance is particularly special.

"A European entrance is all the musicians walking on stage (at the same time)," she says, adding that Francis wants the orchestra to feel appreciated. "It's an exciting thing. Now we clear the stage and all walk out to applause, which is really neat. When we walked on for that opening concert at the Straz to a packed house, we felt like rock stars."

But Corbett's favorite recent addition to TFO has been its intimate engagement with the community. Francis formally took the podium only recently, but last year he conducted concerts at International Plaza and All Children's Hospital. After playing music at bedside, Corbett and other musicians took to the hospital's roof, where they played a concert that was beamed to every hospital bed in the building.
"By far, the most rewarding thing you can do with a violin is bring music to people who are ill," she says. "It was tremendously rewarding to bring music to these people."

Tapping into youthful interests

TFO is also ironing out the details of a Community Sings event for the spring in which anyone can participate. Youth concerts, in general, represent another area of upcoming growth. Pastreich shares that one of the orchestra's major goals is to assure that every child in the Tampa Bay area receives  a comprehensive music education. TFO recently introduced Classical Kids, which means that kids ages 5 to 18 get in free with a paying adult. The effort brought in 2,000 children and teens last season.

"We're going to perform twice as many youth concerts as we did last year" he says, adding that Francis has really been a driving force behind the youth initiative.

Within the music halls, Cantonis adds that Francis is bringing a more direct and engaging experience to patrons. This translates to sharing professional insights about the music to help listeners better understand what they're hearing.

TFO's 2015-16 season runs from October through May. Concerts typically take place on Fridays at the Straz Center in Tampa, Saturdays at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, and Sundays at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Tickets range anywhere from $15 to $65, depending on the series.

For more information about upcoming holiday pops and other concerts, follow this link to the orchestra’s calendar.
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Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.