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Broward Center hopes Bell will ring in new era for classical series

Tue Oct 28, 2014 at 6:05 pm

By David Fleshler

Joshua Bell opens the Broward Center's 2014-15 classical series Saturday night.

Joshua Bell opens the Broward Center’s 2014-15 classical series Saturday night. 

A sold-out crowd jammed the Broward Center for the Performing Arts to hear James Judd lead the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth symphonies.

The concert, which The Miami Herald’s James Roos said generated “almost unbearable” excitement in the audience, capped a 1996-97 Broward Center season that included performances by the British pianist Ronan O’Hora, Handel’s Messiah, the Moscow Soloists with cellist Lynn Harrell, the soprano Kathleen Battle, Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, the Baltimore Symphony, the Orchestre National de France and ten concerts by the Florida Philharmonic.

Cut to earlier this year: At the center’s smaller Amaturo Theater, just over one fourth of the seats were filled for a recital by the pianist Jon Kimura Parker that included a stupefying piano transcription of Stravinsky’s complete Rite of Spring. It was the worst-attended showing in the Broward Center’s dismally sold classical season.

This year’s more populist lineup of events was clearly designed to reverse those fortunes, with fiddle superstar Joshua Bell opening the 2014-15 Broward Center Classical Series with a recital of Schubert, Grieg and Prokofiev Saturday night.

Here are last season’s attendance figures, courtesy of the Broward Center: For the 2,658-seat main hall, the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, 28 percent; the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, 29 percent. For the 590-seat Amaturo Theater, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, 89 percent; violinist Daniel Hope, 36 percent; pianist Jon Kimura Parker, 28 percent.

Last season was the first series curated by James Judd, former music director of the Florida Philharmonic, who still lives a few miles from the Broward Center. Although the series basically flopped, the center’s management remains committed to classical music and has taken several steps to make sure the coming season does better. Judd said he realizes it will take time to restore the center’s classical reputation and is optimistic that the work is moving forward.

“We’re exploring,” he said. “My mission is just a huge rebuilding job to be done, a rebuilding of confidence with the classical audience because we know there used to be lots of concerts here at the Broward Center, and I’m very encouraged that we can build it back.”

There are hopeful signs. Kelley Shanley, the center’s president, said the institution remains committed to classical and has taken several concrete steps to bolster attendance. The center’s new marketing director, he said, takes a more balanced approach to publicizing its offerings, rather than just emphasizing the big moneymakers. Already it’s easier to find the classical lineup on the center’s web page, something that used to take some work.

Most important, the center has prepared a 2014-2015 concert lineup that sounds more designed to find broader, if lighter, appeal.

There will be a couple of big names, with recitals by violinists Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman. The Miami choir Seraphic Fire will sing Handel’s Messiah. For hardcore classical fans there will be a recital by the highly respected young American pianist Jonathan Biss, with a substantial program that includes some rarities, including Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op 2 no. 1 and his Sonata Op. 101, Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, Schumann’s Waldszenen, Op. 82 and Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra with clarinetist Martin Fröst will perform Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and his Symphony No. 40. And there will be a pair of audience-friendly pops concerts, with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra with the Broadway baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra conducted by Keith Lockhart.

When asked about including pops orchestras on this year’s classical lineup, Judd said the only people who would object to their inclusion are “snobs and elites.”

Broward Center president Shanley said that despite last season’s weak ticket sales, classical music remains a priority for an institution that attempts to present a wide range of genres. While Broadway shows fill seats most easily, he said the center isn’t simply trying to sell tickets.

“We feel like it’s a really important part of our role to bring as many different art forms as possible to this market in a meaningful way and a responsible way,” he said. “So, yes on any given night, I could possibly put more people in the seats, but do I feel that classical is an important thing for us to pursue? Absolutely, and you can see that we’ve put significant resources into it, and I really think this is going to help move this whole thing forward.”

The center’s commitment to classical shows in the very fact that there is a classical series, he said, something offered for other genres. “Classical, just due to the fact that we make a series commitment to it, ranks pretty high,” he said. “In terms of classical music, I don’t think the challenges are any greater than for any of the art forms we have here. Nationally these traditional art forms like classical music, opera and ballet, are all struggling a bit.”

Yet the Broward Center’s concerts have seemed to struggle more, racking up consistently smaller audiences than classical events at the Arsht Center in Miami or the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Concert promoter Judy Drucker, whose Concert Association of Florida series played a big role in the Broward Center’s golden age, said the Broward audience is a sophisticated group that was no different from her audience in Miami.

“They were used to getting the big names, and I built up a wonderful audience, so this breaks my heart,” she said. “The audience at the Broward Center are mainly made up of New Yorkers, and they were used to the best. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes. That breaks my heart because we used to do very well.”

Broward County Commission Suzanne Gunzburger, long a regular at Broward Center classical performances, said the series’ troubles stem from many factors—the death of the Florida Philharmonic, the decline of school music programs and the same factors that have caused live presentations of classical music to struggle around the country.

“It’s not unique to us,” she said. “We’ve seen so many orchestras go out of business.”

Judd said he’s optimistic that with the center’s strong commitment to classical music they can restore a robust series of concerts that attract the audiences they deserve.

“We’re just trying out many, many things and I think we’re going to see the seasons evolve over the next few years,” he said.

“When we had an orchestra here doing ten to twelve performances and Judy Drucker was doing four or five concerts, there was a huge amount of classical music being offered. I can’t believe the audience has died away.”

Joshua Bell performs music of Schubert, Grieg and Prokofiev 8 p.m. Saturday, November 1 at the Broward Center. browardcenter.org; 954-462-0222.

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