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As it turns 75, Sarasota Orchestra remains focused on the future

One of the area's oldest cultural institutions searches for a new music director and plans a state-of-the-art music center.

The Sarasota Orchestra's Outdoor Pops series at Ed Smith Stadium attracts crowds.
The Sarasota Orchestra's Outdoor Pops series at Ed Smith Stadium attracts crowds.
Image courtesy of Peter Acker
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Whether they are measured by the season or the year, Sarasota’s cultural institutions have been celebrating some landmark anniversaries lately. Florida Studio Theatre and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens are marking their 50th birthdays and Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training recently turned 65 in its Sarasota incarnation.

The Sarasota Players holds the distinction of being the area’s oldest performing arts institution, having been founded in 1929. But not far behind is the Sarasota Orchestra, which turns 75 this month. Founded in 1949, the orchestra has bragging rights to being the oldest continuing orchestra in Florida.

But it’s not just longevity that makes the orchestra unique in Sarasota; it is without a doubt the single cultural group that reaches the most people in the community.

In making that sweeping statement, we’ll ignore circus magnate John Ringling and his legacy. 

Whether it be through the various formats of its concerts and series, its Youth Orchestra and its summer music festival, the Sarasota Orchestra has a deep and rich relationship with its community that is the envy of music institutions around the country and indeed the world.

This statement reflects much more than hometown boosterism. It’s the power of observation at work, at both large events and in intimate conversations. To start with, let the numbers tell the story. More than 70,000 people experience the Sarasota Orchestra’s live musical performances each year. 

Lest one have any doubt about the Sarasota Orchestra’s connection to its community, just take a look at its mission statement: “to engage, educate, and enrich our community through high-quality, live musical experiences.”

Most people and institutions celebrating their 75th birthday might be tempted to stop and take a long look back at their history, but based on recent conversations with key players, the Sarasota Orchestra is firmly focused on its future.

Dr. W.D. Sugg, George Gibbs, Ruth Cotton Butler and Sam Hill,founders of the predecessor to the Sarasota Orchestra, in the 1960s.
Courtesy image

That’s not to say the orchestra, its members and employees don’t honor and respect the history of the institution, founded as Florida West Coast Symphony by Ruth Cotton Butler along with George Gibbs, Sam Hill and Dr. W.D. Sugg, in 1948-49.

It’s just that the institution, which rebranded as the Sarasota Orchestra in 2008, has some pressing matters to deal with right now.

First and foremost, the search is on for a full-time music director following the 2022 death of Bramwell Tovey, the orchestra’s sixth music director, after a lengthy search led to his appointment the year before. While it looks for Tovey’s successor, the orchestra has relied on the talents and services of two men who both received their titles in 2022.

The first, Peter Oundjian, was appointed creative partner, while David Alan Miller was named artistic advisor. Oundjian is a Canadian violinist and conductor who is former music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra while Miller has served as music director of the Albany Symphony since 1992. 

The two have played major roles in planning programming, auditioning musicians and conducting performances since Tovey died.

The search for a new music director continues but could end at any time if the right person is found, according to Joseph McKenna, president and CEO of the Sarasota Orchestra.

McKenna made statements to that effect both in an interview and in a public meeting Feb. 28 at Holley Hall to present the 2024-25 season lineup and update attendees on the orchestra’s affairs. A member of the orchestra’s executive team since 2001, McKenna provides leadership continuity that might otherwise be in short supply in the absence of a full-time music director.

It’s safe to say that some of the guest conductors who have led the orchestra and entertained Sarasota audiences may be trying out for the music director position and checking out the music scene here. Some might not be looking for a job and are only here for the weather.

In any event, Sarasota audiences have been treated to performances by such world renowned conductors as Oundjian, Miller, Rune Bergmann, Giancarlo Guerrero and others while the music director search is on.

Bergmann is music director of Canada’s Calgary Philharmonic, artistic director and chief conductor of Poland’s Szczecin Philharmonic and chief conductor of Switzerland’s Argovia Philharmonic. Guerrero is music director of the Nashville Symphony.

At the same time that a search committee looks for a new music director, the Sarasota Orchestra is moving ahead with plans to build a new music center east of downtown. The orchestra recently closed on the $14 million purchase of a 32-acre parcel of land on Fruitville Road located off Interstate 75.

The site map shows the plans for the Sarasota Orchestra's new home on 32 acres on Fruitville Road.
Courtesy rendering

After buying the land, the first order of business was hiring Stages Consultants as acoustics and space planning partners for the new facility. “Acoustics comes first in a music center,” says McKenna. Later in the process, an architect will be named.

If you’re new to Sarasota, you might question why the orchestra, which holds the majority of its concerts in the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, needs a new music center when plans are in motion for the development of a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center downtown to replace the Van Wezel.

In June 2023, the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation selected Renzo Piano Building Workshop as the designer of the Performing Arts Center at The Bay out of 43 firms that initially submitted plans.

Long runs at the Van Wezel by touring Broadway productions like “The Lion King” in 2019 and the upcoming “Hamilton,” from March 26 to April 7, have the potential to disrupt the orchestra’s season. But why can’t the Van Wezel become the orchestra’s new permanent home when the purple building is superseded by the new Renzo Piano showplace?

Once again, it comes down to acoustics, McKenna says. The Van Wezel’s aren’t sufficient for the orchestra’s needs, he says.

It’s not just the orchestra that needs a new performance space. Its Sarasota Music Festival, which performs for the public at the Sarasota Opera House, and the Sarasota Youth Orchestra, could use a state-of-the-art facility as well.

The Fruitville Road music center will be closer to where population growth is occurring in both Sarasota and Manatee counties. It will be easier to get to than downtown because of its I-75 exit, McKenna notes.

There are a lot of big projects on the drawing board around town looking for funding, but the Sarasota Orchestra believes the financing will come together for its new music center. It is waiting to start a full-fledged fundraising campaign until it secures a major donor, McKenna told the audience at the Feb. 28 meeting. 

He likened the major endeavors underway at the orchestra to an iceberg, where a lot is going on beneath the surface.

In a roundtable discussion with a reporter that included board member Kim Wheeler, concertmaster Dan Jordan, Vice President of Artistic Operations RoseAnne McCabe and Chief Marketing Officer Gordon Greenfield, all agreed on the need for a new music space and expressed optimism that Sarasota benefactors and audiences will support it. The cost of the center hasn’t been announced.

Concertmaster Daniel Jordan of the Sarasota Orchestra is an audience favorite.
Image courtesy of Daniel Perales

Despite the push to build new performance spaces in Sarasota, many cultural institutions across the country haven’t been hitting their attendance targets since live entertainment was disrupted by the pandemic in the 2020 and 2021 seasons. 

Although its Masterworks series of important classical pieces performed well during the orchestra’s 75th anniversary season, McKenna and others note that more casual concerts like Great Escapes at Holley Hall and the outdoor Pops series at Ed Smith Stadium have proven popular with audiences in the post-Covid era.

Unlike some of Sarasota’s other performing arts groups, which cater to tourists and snowbirds as well as locals, the orchestra has put down deep roots in the community with its youth orchestra, summer camps for kids and its family concerts. 

This year, for the first time, the orchestra’s family concert will feature a Spanish-language performance. Spanish speakers can see “Pedro y el Lobo” (“Peter and the Wolf”) for as little as $5 on March 24.

In a world filled with social media, YouTube, TikTok and other distractions, McKenna sounds almost messianic when he describes the role of music to help human beings deal with the stress and speed of modern life.

If there is any doubt how much the Sarasota loves its orchestra, it was laid to rest by the fact that every seat in Holley Hall was filled for the recent preview of the new season. 

Another sign: Strong demand for Masterworks dinners with visiting conductors at the Sarasota Yacht Club. At the risk of sounding corny, you could feel the love in the room at a recent dinner featuring Bergmann. 

There’s no question that Sarasota prizes its orchestra. Time will tell if audiences and donors prize it enough to build and sustain a new 1,800-seat music center. If history is any guide, they will. 



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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