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Orchestra celebrates instrumental moments

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  • | 4:00 a.m. September 4, 2013
The first formal concert of the FWCS Youth Orchestra was held in 1960. Pictured is the Youth Orchestra in rehearsal in 1978.
The first formal concert of the FWCS Youth Orchestra was held in 1960. Pictured is the Youth Orchestra in rehearsal in 1978.
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In an economy with orchestras facing musician strikes, closures and bankruptcy, the current news for orchestras is not always positive. Call it strong management, smart, no-borrow budgeting, a variety of programming or a city hungry for music — whatever the reason — our powerhouse orchestra has proven to be an instrumental part of this city.

The appointment of a new energetic and promising artistic director, Anu Tali, along with the 50-year celebration of Sarasota Music Festival and 65-year anniversary of Sarasota Orchestra, proves it’s a new era for the Sarasota Orchestra. It’s hard to believe that, at one point in time, Sarasotans had to drive nearly 50 miles to see serious music.

Chip off the old Bloch
“Why couldn’t we do this in Sarasota?” Ruth Cotton Butler, a Sarasota piano teacher, thought during a Tampa Symphony Orchestra (TSO) concert in 1948. Then, TSO consisted of volunteers who had been playing together for just two years under Dr. Lyman Wiltse.

By intermission, Butler had an orchestra planned. She was persistent in having Wiltse also direct her orchestra. He politely declined, but, eventually, Butler prevailed — Wiltse would dedicate one year to the then-unnamed community orchestra.

Butler realized few people thought the idea of a symphony could be successful. Even Wiltse said, “I must have been out of my mind,” about taking the job.

Nonetheless, Butler, with some help from George Gibbs, Sam Hill and Dr. W.D. Sugg, collected an eclectic group of 50 volunteers, who met Jan. 2, 1949, in the band room of Sarasota High School. They were her friends, fellow instrumentalists and piano pupils, such as 15-year-old Robert A. Kimbrough. Kimbrough, now 79 years old, was one of a handful of wind players recruited from the high school band.

On March 12, 1949, the group made its first public appearance to an at-capacity audience in Sarasota Municipal Auditorium. On Jan. 19, 1950, Wiltse led a 65-piece orchestra in the official first concert of a three-concert season.

“I would say the whole effort was meager,” Kimbrough says. “But the community seemed to think it was wonderful. There was music talent in town, and this was an outlet for some of it.”

Wiltse would not return the following year. Instead, 68-year-old composer, violinist and conductor Alexander Bloch, or “Allie,” as his musicians called him, signed on as the first permanent conductor in August 1950, a position the then-Siesta Key resident would hold for 11 years.

Bloch insisted an entire symphony be included in every concert, and he believed he shouldn’t play down to the audience by including popular music in his programs.

For the first six years, the group would meet in whatever space was available — the majority of its budget went to rental fees. In 1954, the City Commission approved the idea of constructing a rehearsal building in the city’s civic center near the municipal auditorium. Florida West Coast Symphony’s was completed in November 1955.

The Wolfe pack
In 1961, Bloch announced his retirement. Paul Wolfe was selected as conductor from more than 100 applicants from as far as Europe. The 35-year-old professional musician played violin, piano, harpsichord and oboe and had previously conducted the Bronx Symphony Orchestra for five years.

He was demanding, but improved the musicianship of the orchestra through doubling (sometimes tripling) the number of rehearsals before each concert. The new time restraints caused a few musicians to leave, and Wolfe brought in paid professionals. He developed a small staff and established a budget. The first year, the orchestra’s budget was $1,200; by the 1968 season it exceeded $70,000.

Wolfe also introduced a 15-piece chamber orchestra and a string quartet. He began conducting the Youth Orchestra. The Youth Orchestra flourished under Wolfe. In 1965, his interest in helping young musicians led him to found the Sarasota Music Festival at New College — a festival that continues to bring young music students from around the world to learn under the professionals each June.

Robert Vernon, current principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra, got his start in Sarasota; he was a student at The Juilliard School when he first auditioned for the Sarasota Music Festival in the late 1960s. Soon after, Wolfe encouraged Vernon to audition for the New College string quartet, which he did. He joined the faculty of New College, as well as played with FWCS as principal viola for one season. In 1978, he joined the Sarasota Music Festival as faculty, and he continues to return as faculty yearly. In 1985, Sarasota Music Festival merged with FWCS.

It has remained an important branch of Sarasota Orchestra to this day, and will celebrate its 50th anniversary in June. Vernon emphasizes the capacity of its importance — it’s known internationally by musicians. It helps put Sarasota Orchestra on the map.

Turning over a new Leif
In 1995, Wolfe retired from the conductor position after a dedicated 35-year tenure. Kimbrough chaired a search committee for a new conductor (he served on the board from 1979 through 2003); principal tuba with Sarasota Orchestra since 1987 Jay Hunsberger was also on the committee.

Hunsberger remembers it as a diplomatic, positive experience; the committee created a list of candidates from the applications and visited those conductors on-site. If the committee liked what it saw, the conductor was invited to guest conduct. Hunsberger went to Buffalo, N.Y., with executive director at the time Gretchen Serrie for one on-site evaluation and remembers it as a real chance to get to know each other.

“She was a terrific leader … and suddenly one day found herself at the helm of this orchestra,” Hunsberger says. “She was a real nurturing, smart and savvy leader. She was a real positive force.”

Kimbrough remembers the search that resulted in Leif Bjaland’s appointment a little differently. After one full season of guest conductors, he says they didn’t select any candidates.

“We had people writing us letters saying we ruined the orchestra and no noteworthy conductor would ever come back,” he laughs.

The next season they worked with the American Symphony Orchestra League’s conductors liaison department for suggestions of ideal candidates — one was Bjaland, head of the New World Symphony in Miami.

Bjaland rose to the head of the candidates’ list that second season. He was named the third permanent artistic director (fourth, if you count Wiltse) in 1997.

Kimbrough remembers watching Bjaland conduct entire symphonies from memory without missing a cue. Hunsberger remembers the times following concerts when Bjaland would socialize with the musicians and how he’d try to make rehearsals fun with his campy sense of humor.

In 2002, the musicians elected to go full-fledged professional and be represented by the American Federation of Musicians. Current Executive Director Joe McKenna had only been with the organization for a short time.

Principal trombone for Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops Toby Oft was a member of FWCS then, and he remembers McKenna as being a positive force throughout the unionization. Oft says he had “a gentleman of character.” McKenna continues to be a strong leader today, and the orchestra remains in the black. In 2008, the FWCS changed its name to the less-cumbersome Sarasota Orchestra. Three years later, in 2011, Bjaland announced he would step down from his position.

In the 15 years he guided the Sarasota Orchestra, Bjaland brought unfamiliar works to audiences. For instance, he created the series Journeys to Genius, what is today the multimedia Innovations series that Dirk Meyer leads. And Bjaland commissioned new music and brought rarely performed music to Masterworks concerts.

Anu journey begins
For two seasons, guest conductors directed in the interim between artistic directors. The first to arrive following the announcement that Bjaland would retire was Anu Tali, co-founder of the Nordic Symphony Orchestra. Hunsberger remembers it as an emotional time for the orchestra, but that the week with Tali was a positive experience for everyone. She connected with the musicians and the audience.

During the interim was an 18-month closed search for a new director. Guest conductors led Sarasota Orchestra — some were candidates, others were not. The search would end when the proper candidate was selected.

On June 11, the committee announced that Tali signed a three-year contract with the orchestra, effective Aug. 1. She will conduct her first concert as music director in the first Masterworks of this season, “Dawning of a New Season,” starting Nov. 9. The tagline? A new journey begins. Here’s to another successful 65 years.

1949 — Florida West Coast Symphony performed its first public performance March 12.
1950 — Jan. 19 marked the first concert of the three-concert season.
1951 — In August, Alexander Bloch became the second music director of FWCS.
1953 — 1,500 children attended the Children’s Concerts program to give children their first taste of orchestral music.
1955 — The Florida West Coast Symphony Orchestra Rehearsal Hall was completed in November.
1959 — Youth Orchestra Program was founded through sponsorship of the Symphony Women’s Association (founded by Lota Mundy in 1957).
1961 — Paul Wolfe began his tenure as the third music director.
1964 — Wolfe founded the Sarasota Music Festival at New College
1977 — FWCS introduced its Summer Music Camp
1985 — Sarasota Music Festival merged with FWCS
1990s — FWCS evolved into a fully paid professional orchestra
1997 — Leif Bjaland was appointed as fourth music director
2001 — Executive Director Gretchen Serrie retired, and Joseph McKenna becomes administrative leader of FWCS
2002 — FWCS was unionized under the American Federation of Musicians
2008 — FWCS rebranded, taking the name Sarasota Orchestra
2013 — Anu Tali was appointed fifth music director of Sarasota Orchestra

Then and Now — The Sarasota Orchestra recreates the very first concert of Florida West Coast Symphony. It will play Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, works by Saint-Saens, Berlioz, Grieg, Nicolai and Gilére, and even Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12
Where: Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave.
Cost: $24 to $39
Info: Call 953-3434


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