On a High Note

The Fort Lauderdale area’s two symphony orchestras are part of a wider classical music community that has seen changes over the years, and that strives to provide music and culture to a growing, changing place.

By: 

FL Mag Staff

Published date: 

Feb. 1, 2018

The Fort Lauderdale area’s two big orchestras celebrate some important milestones this year. The organization that’s now called the South Florida Symphony Orchestra began a decade after the Symphony of the Americas, which means their major anniversaries sync up nicely. The 2017-18 season marks SFSO’s 20th anniversary, while SOTA celebrates its 30th.

SOTA and SFSO are the Fort Lauderdale area’s two contributions to the diverse, competitive world of symphonic music in South Florida. (Both orchestras perform around the region, but both are based locally – SOTA on Commercial Boulevard near Federal Highway, and SFSO on Wilton Drive in Wilton Manors.) In Miami-Dade there’s the Miami Symphony Orchestra as well as the Miami Beach-based New World Symphony, which bills itself as “America’s orchestral academy” – a sort of finishing school for graduates of top musical programs, under the direction of famed conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Palm Beach County offers the Palm Beach Symphony and chamber orchestra The Symphonia, Boca Raton. Then there are the related genres – Miami City Ballet, Florida Grand Opera – and numerous smaller arts and music organizations.

Together they make up a big and sometimes chaotic musical world that lacks one large organization at the top. It’s a decade and a half since the Florida Philharmonic – South Florida’s major, fully professional symphony orchestra – went bankrupt and closed down. (Orchestras such as SOTA and SFSO are professional in that they employ professional musicians, but they employ them on a concert-by-concert basis rather than full-time.) Since then, a number of organizations across South Florida have started or expanded. They attempt to fill the ever-increasing number of performing arts centers and concert halls around South Florida – and they try to provide for a growing, changing community with everything from less-than-traditional concerts to programs aimed at getting children into the music.

Conductor Sebrina Maria Alfonso founded the Key West Symphony Orchestra in her hometown in 1997; a little more than a decade later it moved to the mainland and became the South Florida Symphony Orchestra. Maestra Alfonso says the change is good, if daunting.

“As we came up here, the most transformation that had to be made was going from one little town to four counties and millions of people with a limited budget for marketing or PR,” she says. “The symphony is kind of moving faster than we’re able to keep up with because people are hungry for this. People are getting it and starting to come around and work with us.”

Over the years, Symphony of the Americas has built up a reputation thanks to innovative programming such as its popular Summerfest series, as well as concerts that incorporate sounds and styles outside the traditional classical canon.

“What is the biggest challenge for us?” executive director Renee LaBonte asks. “Not to be caught into one genre, to offer something for everybody. The answer has to be we do a bit of everything.

“It’s all about really trying to keep up with what you’re presenting for programs so that it’s appealing to all age groups.”

It’s an ethos that last year led the symphony to bring in rapper Nelly for a concert. (Rap-orchestra pairings actually aren’t that uncommon. For a genuinely surprising musical experience, check YouTube for footage of Sir-Mix-A-Lot performing "Baby Got Back," his ‘90s tribute to the female posterior, with his hometown Seattle Symphony.)

“We try to do a few of those kinds of things every year as well as Opera to Broadway and those kinds of concerts as well,” LaBonte says.

SFSO also takes a broad view of the sort of work a symphony might do.

“Our real goal is to set the pace for being the cultural arm in these communities and making sure the education component, the high-level concerts for the community and just community-based outreach are part of a regional orchestra’s responsibility to the community,” Alfonso says. “We try to do that by bringing a little more diversity into our program.

“I feel like we’re trying to incorporate the community as a whole by bringing in these different genres of music, different types of artists.”

Once you’ve got that interesting, diverse program, you’ve got to make sure people know about it.

“One thing is doing the product,” LaBonte says, “and the other thing is getting it under the noses of the right people.”

That’s why you might see musicians on the Riverwalk, or in the breezeway at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale. (The latter is a new event being organized for a weekend afternoon in May.) SOTA’s popular Serenades @ Sunset series takes place in the bar atop the Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six.

“We’re really just trying to do some things where it’s an event, not just a concert,” LaBonte says.

Many of those events are aimed at attracting a younger crowd. Then there’s the challenge of attracting the youngest crowd.

In December, SOTA put on a holiday show with local youth choirs the Florida Singing Sons and the Girl Choir of South Florida. The symphony also looks for ways to partner in schools; LaBonte notes one successful partnership with the Weston Philharmonic Society that allows musicians into Weston-area elementary and middle schools.

“We’ve got a partnership and an investment, so to speak, with some of the schools in Weston,” says LaBonte, who adds that the symphony is open to similar arrangements in other parts of South Florida. “The outgrowth of that is that they are getting some music programs started there.”

In doing that, LaBonte feels the symphony is bucking a trend that sees schools moving away from subjects such as music as a list of culprits – often with standardized testing near the top – leads schools towards a curriculum based more heavily on core subjects.

“It’s some fluffy extracurricular thing that they don’t feel they need to be a part of,” LaBonte says.

Alfonso sees the demise of the Florida Philharmonic as a big part of the lack of more musical presence in local schools. Go to cities with one big symphony and you’ll see concerted efforts – programs, concerts for students and the sort of push you can really only get from one big, deep-pocketed organization. Without that, Alonso says, local schoolchildren have suffered. “It’s two generations of children that grew up without that culture being pushed in the schools,” she says. “There needs to be that leadership that makes that happen for the children.”

SFSO has tried to fill that void as much as possible. But in an area as populous and geographically vast as South Florida, that can be hard for a growing but still comparatively small organization.

“It hasn’t been an easy process to break through that,” Alonso says, comparing it to the symphony’s early days in Monroe County. “Key West is a small town – it was easy to reach all the children; it was easy to have these programs.”

The lack of a big, full-time orchestra creates new challenges in other ways. In most metropolitan areas, the full-time orchestra acts as a kind of sun that other musical bodies orbit. It provides consistent work – in addition to the full-time musicians, major symphony orchestras bring on additional musicians according to their needs on a concert-by-concert basis. Other musical organizations coordinate their programming around the major symphony, and everything is ordered. This lets plenty of musicians find enough work to make a living wage.

Alonso describes the scene in South Florida as less structured. With everybody hustling for slots in performing arts centers whenever they can get them, schedule overlap is frequent; she often finds musicians she’d love to work with, but they have a schedule conflict elsewhere in South Florida. There are musicians she’d love to have, but they’re playing with other groups.

“All of us are conflicting all the time,” she says. “When you have one major orchestra, that issue wasn’t there.

"We’re not able to come together and really figure it out so that you keep your top musicians so they don’t leave, and so that more of the players play together.”

To clarify, Alonso does not believe the South Florida musical arts community lacks quality or passion. The other orchestras, Miami City Ballet, Florida Grand Opera – arts patrons do not want for options.

“These are all high-level organizations, but we’re all doing our own thing,” she says. “We’re not able to work together because of timings, of putting on these performances.”

LaBonte remembers the days of classical music at War Memorial Auditorium – a place that, while undoubtedly beloved by generations of Fort Lauderdale people, benefits from acoustics more suitable for its current fare of orchid shows and stamp collector fairs than it was for symphonies. Once, she said, a band led by Doc Severinsen came to town for a pops concert. Johnny Carson’s legendary Tonight Show bandleader was not impressed.

“He said, ‘Renee, really?' LaBonte recalls. “’Yeah, that’s what we have now. But come back in a few years.’”

If Severinsen came back today, he would indeed find a different venue landscape. Not only are there major performing arts centers in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach, cities from Lauderhill to Pembroke Pines to Coral Springs – and that’s an incomplete list - have also built facilities capable of hosting symphonic concerts. It might sound overly simplistic, but having enough physical space – having the choice of various venues – makes a difference.

The arts ecosystem has grown in other ways. Back in the day, music onstage in Fort Lauderdale essentially meant one symphony, the opera company and Zev Buffman’s Broadway series.

“Now,” LaBonte says, “you’ve got all these opportunities and you’ve got all these really fine community arts groups … you’ve got this menu of options. We have to work together and partner, combine.”