- August 13, 2015
When the Sarasota Orchestra recently announced that it would be seeking alternative sites and plans for a new concert hall complex in the city of Sarasota, that decision was not based on vanity or frustration, but necessity.
“There is an urgency to this decision that underlies our strategy and need if we are to continue fulfilling our mission and serving the community,” says Joseph McKenna, president and CEO of the orchestra.
The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall was originally built as a rehearsal and performance home for Sarasota organizations, with rentals filling in the gaps, but as time passed and economic pressure mounted, these rentals increased, severely limiting availability for the Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota Ballet and other local organizations.
“The Van Wezel has been a wonderful friend to the orchestra, but they can’t give us dates they don’t have,” McKenna says. “As we are called upon to expand and diversify our offerings, we cannot get additional performance dates in already packed schedules.”
Most major and regional symphony orchestras are able to rehearse in the halls where they perform, giving conductor, players and soloists the consistency of a good acoustical ambience necessary for a high standard of performance. The Sarasota Orchestra holds all preliminary rehearsals in Holley Hall, a concert hall inside the Friedman Symphony Center.
Holley Hall is at best satisfactory for chamber music and an occasional recital, but just doesn’t have enough cubic footage to accommodate the sound of a full symphony orchestra — neither in rehearsal nor concert. Usually the Sarasota Orchestra is able to schedule its fourth and final dress rehearsal in the Van Wezel, but that is on the day of the concert, when there is no time for any major adjustments. When the Van Wezel is not available for a complete rehearsal, the orchestra must settle for an almost cursory 30-minute sound check before the concert.
Moving a symphony orchestra is not a simple task. It involves large percussion equipment, chairs, stands, instrument and music trunks and the like, and the technical staff does all this with the precision of a well-oiled machine. Moving onto the stage on the morning of a concert and back home after the final concert is like working with an orchestra that is constantly on tour.
Hall rentals and moves from venue to venue are expensive, and the Sarasota Orchestra has budgeted nearly $750,000 for the coming season to pay for hall rentals and associated costs at the various halls where it performs. These funds could be allocated to maintaining a dedicated orchestra facility or other needs.
Even with the recent installation of a Wenger Concert Shell, the Van Wezel is still at best not well suited for non-amplified music, which has continued to drive the orchestra to seek the acoustically superior space of a dedicated concert hall. To have such a facility would not only raise the artistic profile of the Sarasota Orchestra, but would greatly enhance Sarasota’s position of leadership in the arts in Florida.
Then there are the educational programs of the orchestra, which are literally bursting at the seams in need of time and space. There are more than 300 student musicians in the eight ensembles of the Youth Orchestra Program, many of whom receive need-based financial aid. The Young Persons Concerts provide some 10,000 fourth and fifth graders from Sarasota and Manatee counties the opportunity of a live symphony concert experience. Currently there is no room for the much-needed expansion of these services.
All this, and probably more, convinced the orchestra’s board of directors to reach a unanimous decision to explore other sites within the city of Sarasota for a dedicated concert hall and music center.
“We are honored to bring the magic of live musical experiences and education to nearly 90,000 people each year, and we intend to accelerate our excellence, outreach and impact in the years ahead,” McKenna says.