Miami Symphony Orchestra marks 25 years with greatly improved playing, continuing financial struggle

By David Fleshler

Eduardo Marturet opens the Miami Symphony Orchestra's 25th season Sunday night at New World Center.

Eduardo Marturet opens the Miami Symphony Orchestra’s 25th season Sunday night at the Arsht Center.

The Miami Symphony Orchestra was headed for Carnegie Hall, and many people were appalled.

Despite the civic puffery of Miami politicians over the trip in June of 2000, informed listeners cringed at the thought of a third-rate orchestra representing the region on the nation’s most prominent concert stage. New York Times critic Bernard Holland tried to be kind but found much of the performance to be sloppy and out of tune, saying “the ear labored unreasonably hard to penetrate the Miami’s murky ensemble playing.”

He would not write that today. As the orchestra prepares to open its 25th season this Sunday at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall, it is a vastly improved ensemble, thanks largely to the infusion of talented new musicians and the energetic leadership of music director Eduardo Marturet.

The Miami Symphony still doesn’t approach the level of second-tier orchestras in comparable cities, such as Kansas City, Houston or Atlanta. And it faces formidable financial challenges, including paying its musicians on time. Yet there is an excitement and a polish to its performances that had not been present just a few years ago.

“Eduardo brought tremendous dynamism and professionalism and really increased the quality of the performances,” said Rafael Diaz-Balart, chairman of the orchestra’s board. “Miami needs and deserves a first-class orchestra. I think Miami–besides being the Hong Kong of the western hemisphere–could also become the Venice: a commercial powerhouse but also a center for the arts.”

Founded in 1989 by Manuel Ochoa, a choral conductor in pre-Castro Cuba, the ensemble started out playing pops concerts at the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Inter-Continental. As it aspired to grander repertoire, it was lashed by critics for ragged, out-of-tune playing. Once during a performance of the second movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, the musicians became so lost they had to start over. In one of many tough reviews, The Miami Herald’s late critic James Roos called the orchestra’s sound “amateurish and constricted” and described one English horn solo as “a horror.”

Enter Eduardo Marturet. The Caracas native had spent years leading orchestras in live performances and recordings in Germany, Holland, Venezuela and many other countries. And he had long had a home in Miami. He joined the orchestra in 2005 as associate principal conductor. “It took me a year because I was traveling all over the place and Ochoa didn’t want to talk on the telephone,” he said. “He had this obsession that Castro was listening to him and Chavez was listening to me.”

The next year Ochoa died at the age of 80, and leadership of the orchestra fell to Marturet if he wanted it. A man with a busy conducting schedule, Marturet said he only wanted to get involved if there was a chance of really building something in Miami. “I told the board, ‘Listen, I’m only interested in staying here if we’re going to make a good orchestra,’” he recalled, speaking by phone from his home in Caracas. “Otherwise, I’m wasting my time.”

Once in command, Marturet did not charge in and immediately begin handing out pink slips. But he began to program more difficult repertoire, set higher standards and allowed those who couldn’t keep up to gradually drop out. “I made a point that we shouldn’t fire anybody,” he said. “‘Don’t worry, I told the board. It won’t be necessary and I don’t think it’s very good for the community. The music will fire them. We’ll play more difficult music and they won’t be able to cope with it.’”

Meanwhile, he started to look for fresh talent, particularly for leadership roles in the various sections of the orchestra. “I was very careful to recruit important principals,” he said. For the crucial position of principal horn, he hired the fine Honduran player Hector Rodriguez, whose robust, smoothly phrased solos are a highlight of the orchestra’s concerts. “He’s a big star,” Marturet said. “When we put that guy in, he changed completely the color of the brass. We’ve been doing the same thing in the other sections.”

Last season Marturet hired a new principal double bass, Luis Gomez-Imbert, who had worked with Marturet as principal bass of the National Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and the Caracas Symphony.

“He called me to join the orchestra and I said yes absolutely, I’m more than delighted to do so,” said Gomez-Imbert, a professor at Florida International University’s School of Music. “Eduardo is a person with a magnetic personality and he effuses that passion for music to the orchestra The performances are very electric. They are infused with a lot of energy, and I think the audience can feel that energy from the orchestra with Eduardo on the podium.”

Perhaps most important, he recruited Daniel Andai as concertmaster, the leader of the first violins, a position that amounts to the orchestra’s second-in-command. A Miami native, Andai had played with the orchestra as a teenager and still speaks of Ochoa with warmth and respect. He went on to graduate from an elite conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music, and eventually returned to South Florida to join the orchestra.

“I saw what Maestro Marturet was doing, that he was taking the orchestra to a new level, and I decided that was something I really wanted to be a part of because Miami is my hometown and I really love it,” he said. “So I asked what positions were open, and he told me the concertmaster’s position was open.”

Under Andai’s leadership, the violins have become the orchestra’s strongest section, with a virtuoso sheen and knife-edged precision. This came about through the recruitment of strong players and a focus on fundamentals. “My main goals were to try to find a unified sound in the string section, and eventually among the winds and brass too,” Andai said. “And I was very much interested in bowings and what strings we played certain passages on.”

Marturet has handed Andai more and more responsibility, including conducting concerts and said he hopes at some point that the young violinist will become his successor on the podium.

Conductors who dramatically raise the level of an ensemble can be intimidating, dictatorial figures. At the Vienna Opera, Gustav Mahler was famous for the icy stare he directed at offending players. At the Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell had a habit of firing underachievers on the spot.

This is a different era, of course, and conductors would have a harder time getting away with such autocratic methods. Still, by all accounts, Marturet has distinguished himself by carrying out the improvements with a minimum of strife, keeping a high morale level in the orchestra, and creating an atmosphere in which musicians feel valued.

“Everyone knows everyone by name,” Andai said. “Eduardo makes a big deal about introducing new people that come to play.

“Many nights Eduardo and I spend discussing things about the orchestra and always, always taking into account every musician and how they felt and what kind of experience we wanted them to have.”

Pleasant as working conditions may be, everyone likes to be paid, and here the orchestra has fallen short. The orchestra still owes its musicians money from last season. Marturet attributes the problem to cash-flow issues, partly from contributions not coming in on time.

“Our financial obligations to the musician are paramount and we always honor the payments to our musicians, though at times, lamentably, late,” he said. “Due to our fundraising challenges and difficulties, we still have pending payments of last season to the orchestra musicians. We have been making payments to the musicians in the last few months, and are working to continue doing so in the short term as we also balance the payments with the current season obligations ahead.”

The orchestra ran a deficit of $319,833 in the last fiscal year. Revenues have risen significantly over the past three years, from $886,256 in the 2008-09 season to slightly more than $1 million in the 2010-2011 season, still far too low for an orchestra of Miami’s aspirations. Season subscriptions have risen from a low of 231 in the 2010-2011 season to 305 this season.

The orchestra faces a challenging fundraising environment as it chases the same classical music dollars sought by the New World Symphony, Florida Grand Opera and that interloper from the shores of Lake Erie, the Cleveland Orchestra. “Although I have great respect for the orchestra, Cleveland, takes a huge stake of our fundraising potential,” Marturet said. “I understand why they do it because they’re also in a survival mode in their town.”

And as board chairman Diaz-Balart points out, the gleaming towers going up across downtown Miami and the beach conceal the presence of two economies, a gilded international one fueled by money from Brazil, Venezuela and other countries, and a local one.

“We have the local economy and we have the economy that comes from abroad,” he said. “That’s fantastic. I’m not saying it’s bad. But they’re not really committed to the community. All the wealth that you see doesn’t translate into [local] support for the arts.”

And while he and other board members have tried to broaden the board from the days when the orchestra was considered strictly a Hispanic enterprise, he said that work remains incomplete. “We want the board to be representative of the community in Miami, and I think we have been successful in attracting–I hate the word– anglos onto the board,” he said. “We have brought in more anglo board members, and it’s better, but I would like it to be even more inclusive.”

Despite the orchestra’s challenges, Marturet doesn’t go in for the sort of craven programming that produces concerts full of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and the rest. Those popular composers are there, of course, as they should be, but the orchestra routinely performs contemporary music, world premieres and obscure works from the corners of the classical repertoire.

This season, for example, will include the world premiere of Orlando Jacinto Garcia’s Voces Celestiales for Two Double Basses, new works by the orchestra’s composers in residence and the South Florida premiere of Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 3 for flute, guitar and orchestra.

The final concert will include the South Florida premiere of Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, a work that requires something called a color organ that translates sounds into colors. In addition to all the new repertory, there will be plenty of works by the established masters, including the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, the Brahms Symphony No. 2, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

Next Sunday’s season-opening concert will include a work by Marturet called Homage to Waldo, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with soloist Andreas Boyde, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with guitar soloist Ángel Romero and Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story.

In his programming, Marturet said he tries to provide something the audience goes in looking forward to as well as challenging works that will sharpen everyone’s hearing.

“There is always a catch to attract the audience, something the public is attracted by and also something that the musicians will enjoy playing and look forward to,” he said. “And something that shakes the heck out of the public too. I like to do that at the beginning of a program if possible.

“That somehow raises the RAM memory of what they come to listen to, so after listening to a totally new piece of music their references are fresh at that moment, and then when they hear a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart concerto, they listen to it fully fresh, and it’s very effective.”

The Miami Symphony Orchestra opens its season 8 p.m. Sunday at the Arsht Center. themiso.org, 305-275-5666.

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11 Responses to “Miami Symphony Orchestra marks 25 years with greatly improved playing, continuing financial struggle”

  1. Posted Oct 16, 2013 at 12:35 am by Kenneth Martinson

    I am not sure who has made the decision that this group is vastly improved. It is still sub-standard, it pays less the union wage, and they have made no commitment to local players. They fly in out of state players who are willing to come to Florida, take a sub-standard wage, and chalk it up as a paid Florida vacation. Miami needs a real orchestra with a real conductor, with real salaried players. It is too bad nobody in the Miami community will bone-up and fund a full-time local orchestra with a decent livable wage with benefits. Then again, you get what you pay for!

  2. Posted Oct 16, 2013 at 1:10 am by Monty Bloom

    I don’t know why all the articles about the Miami Symphony are very deceptive about this orchestra. It is portrayed as a full-time salaried orchestra, but in fact, it is a per-service group with approximately 70 services per season. Since the average section player makes only $100 per service (which is severely below scale), the average musician in this orchestra is only bringing in $7000 per year. Obviously, they teach lessons ,play in other orchestras, and do all sorts of other gigs to make ends meet. But when you start comparing it to orchestras in other cities like Atlanta, Kansas City, and Houston, you are comparing it to orchestras that are full time and pay a decent salary. And they pay their musicians on time!!

    This orchestra needs to be abolished.

  3. Posted Oct 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm by Fred Jonas

    I’m not sure whether Mr Martinson and Mr Bloom have attended MiSO concerts, or they have simply read about the orchestra. Make no mistake: this is in fact a first rate (not third, and not second) orchestra. If at present, the members work more for love than money, let that demonstrate something.

    Yes, “Enter Eduardo Marturet.” He has worked magic with this organization, much as David Fleshler catalogues. And Marturet and the MiSO do not skip the usual orchestral fare “despite the…challenges” but because of them. The MiSO have created programs no one else does, and they have been very satisfyingly adventurous. That the MiSO play unusual programs is not their failure, but their special success. Each of their concerts is a treat and a surprise, whether it’s off beat programming or lagniappes, like the now de rigueur “unexpected” organ offering during intermission at the FIU auditorium. (Sorry, no better phrasing springs to mind.)

    It’s certainly true that the MiSO, like all such organizations, needs contributors, but what it needs first is packed houses. It’s frankly tragic to imagine the people who are not sitting in the empty seats in these halls. The programs are completely enriching, the musicianship is top flight, and the prices are half or less than half of what listeners would pay for the Cleveland. In fact, no one who buys a seat for the Cleveland would be less than delighted at a MiSO concert, and feel like a bandit for having paid so little.

    305 subscribers is better than 231, but it’s less than a full house, and the MiSO should be SRO. Clearly, someone has caught on, and I, for one (and as a season ticket holder) hope the locals, and our out-of-town and foreign visitors, figure out this treasure is here. Maturet said he wouldn’t take over unless the program was serious, and he’s holding firm. Thirteen years later, and he’s still in the saddle.

    I don’t know what the MiSO should do to increase its devotees, whether it’s a matter of marketing or what. But the orchestra has come this far, its trajectory is still ascendant, and I have every confidence it will continue to gain stability. At least if it can continue to rely on Eduardo Marturet until it becomes reliably supported by this community.

  4. Posted Oct 17, 2013 at 10:25 pm by Kenneth Martinson

    Mr. Jonas, first of all, I must wonder how you can defend a group which is several months behind on paying its musicians. This paying of musicians late happens to be a violation of the City of Miami Law. You state “If at present, the members work more for love than money, let that demonstrate something.” I don’t think you have a grasp of how much time and preparation it takes to be a musician. This is not something we do for pure fun, this is our career. Do you think musicians should be satisfied with a wage which amounts to less than the poverty level? Who you accept a job with such low pay, and wait 8 months for your check? This is absurd!

    A “first rate” orchestra pays a salary of $90,000-$150,000/year. MISO pays not even 1/10th of this, if they decide to pay at all. People who complain about the late pay are retaliated against for complaining about not being paid by being forced to wait longer. This comes from the top down, namely Marturet. I agree with Mr. Bloom, this orchestra would be best to be disbanded, and not supported by the community.

  5. Posted Oct 18, 2013 at 9:16 am by Eddie Johnson

    What I find laughable is that fact that the musician’s union is brought up in these comments as something that needs to be respected. Take a look at the South Florida Musician’s Union website, it looks like something that was created before the invention of the internet. They have absolutely no influence in South Florida, and in many cases the AFM is doing tons of damage to the orchestral world nation wide. There is something seriously wrong, when a composer or conductor can’t film a rehearsal or obtain a recording for developmental purposes…Or that you can not go 30 seconds overtime to finish the end of a composer’s thought without paying out tons of extra money. You must questions any musical organization that values the musician about the music.
    While the payment situation has been atrocious and indefensible with the Miami Symphony, musicians nationwide need to wake up and realize that even though it is a career and not a hobby….they still PLAY MUSIC FOR A LIVING!!! This simple fact is just forgotten in the psyche of the orchestral musician, and has led to a bitter and jaded culture. Why should we expect audiences to flock to uninspired performances?
    A lot of musicians feel ENTITLED to earn a good living because they have worked hard and practiced and have multiple degrees. I’m sorry, the world does not work like that. Every other field has had to make serious adjustments to the changing world, why not orchestral musicians? And let’s be honest, the salaries of many orchestras are WAY over inflated for the marketplace. At the very least, you can say about Miami Symphony that the performances (while often lacking polish), have energy and it seems like despite the payment situation the musicians enjoying performing.
    Hopefully musicians will begin to seize their own destiny, but they certainly won’t be led by musicians such as Mr. Martinson,Mr. Bloom, and the officers of the South Florida Musician’s Union.

  6. Posted Oct 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm by gerry weiss

    I suspect that when the reviewer next hears this “orchestra: , that it will once again be third-rate or worse, because so many of the best musicians, including principal players, have quit due to un-professional treatment and non-payment over many months.

  7. Posted Oct 20, 2013 at 3:51 pm by Dexter Dwight

    As a current member of The Miami Symphony Orchestra (I am Acting Principal Percussion), I can assure all who may read this that very few players have left the orchestra due to the financial issues the orchestra is experiencing, as Mr. Weiss suggests. It simply not true.

    The Miami Symphony is all about passion: the passion of making wonderful music, the passion of giving Miami more culture, the passion of lifting the spirits of our audience. Performing with The Miami Symphony Orchestra is clearly NOT about making money.

    As noted in this article, the quality of the music making is increasing with every performance and that will continue to be the case. We have a growing audience base which appreciates our varied programming and our palpable positive energy. Hopefully the community will continue to support us and we will grow into a full time orchestra, which is something that Miami deserves. In spite of our financial difficulties, the future is nothing but bright for the Miami Symphony Orchestra. You can rest assured that future reviews of our performances will attest to that.

  8. Posted Oct 21, 2013 at 6:28 am by Monty Bloom

    Eddie Johnson –

    I don’t know who you are, but your comment is obviously that of ignorance.

    There are good reasons for many of the union policies, and paying musicians for overtime is just the way things have always been. The issue is one that is blown out of proportion by the lay person, but in actuality, there is little controversy of it. With proper planning, a rehearsal and/or concert will almost never need to go into overtime, and the extra amount of money to cover the rare overtime is really not that much to begin with. I book private events for a living, and we charge overtime when the event goes over, and the client never questions it. It’s just how it goes.

    Playing music for a living? Who is ANYONE to say that just because we enjoy what we do doesn’t justify that we are paid well?

    Doctors certainly enjoy being doctors, as do lawyers. And engineers. And football players. And they certainly aren’t paid less.

    Again, your comment is one of great ignorance.

  9. Posted Oct 21, 2013 at 3:16 pm by Kenneth Martinson

    Mr. Johnson finds it laughable to mention the musicians union as comment on this preview. My question is, “Why?” Your critique of the musicians union reminds me of that old saying “Cut the person’s leg off, and then call him ‘lame’”. Yes, the musician’s union is weak in Florida- this is by design of our political leaders who have deemed Florida to be a “right to work” state. I am not sure if Mr. Johnson is a musician or not, but most musicians would find his viewpoint quite offensive to suggestion musicians not get a fair compensation for recording work, while at the same time accepting the rates one pays for going to the doctor, hiring a lawyer, or getting your car repaired. Everybody wants music for free, but to quote Mr. Johnson “this is not how the world works”. I am not sure where Mr. Johnson is coming from thinking musicians believe they are entitled to a wage. Musicians know they are entering a competitive field, and there are no guarantees. However, it is my philosophical belief that in our country, the richest country in the world, every major U.S. city should have a well-paid full time orchestra. Miami is the clear exception to the rule, and frankly, the city ought to be extremely ashamed of themselves for not fixing this problem.

  10. Posted Oct 23, 2013 at 12:59 am by Manuel Ochoa Jr

    I am thoroughly disgusted by the lack of journalistic integrity of David Fleschler’s article on the Miami Symphony. His comments on the founder of the Miami Symphony and my deceased father, Maestro Manuel Ochoa, are rude, erroneous, and downright disrespectful. Anyone who knew my father finds his derisive and contemptuous characterizations far from the man who was a passionate and professional musician who dedicated his life to bringing classical music to South Florida.

    I am even more offended by the choice of the quote from Maestro Marturet, which was probably taken out of context, and made during a time when my father was extremely ill and bed-ridden. Mr. Fleschler made a cursory search of old reviews from James Roos who was a snobby and petty man who seemed to have a vendetta against my father. Rather than support a budding orchestra, Mr. Roos simply dismissed my father, when for reasons unknown, he decided not to support the effort and ignored the MSO for some time hoping it would go away.

    Nevertheless, the Miami Symphony Orchestra persevered with support from local governments like Miami-Dade County, local business leaders, and of course the public. The article also makes no mention of my father’s extensive studies in conducting at important conservatories in Spain, Italy, and Germany not to mention that my father left Cuba in 1966 not in pre-Castro Cuba. There’s also no mention of the positive reviews from Daniel Fernandez of the Nuevo Herald among others nor does he highlight some of the positive comments from Bernard Holland regarding the Carnegie Hall concert.

    No, the Carnegie Hall concert was no embarrassment as purported in the article. Mr. Fleschler could have drawn other comments from David Lawrence, former publisher of the Miami Herald regarding my father’s dedication and civic leadership to the arts, but he didn’t. He also never bothered to interview my mother Sofia Ochoa, who should be credited as co-founder of the Miami Symphony who from the very beginning was fully involved in the administration of the orchestra.

    Mr. Fleschler also never bothered to mention that Maestro Ochoa was invited to conduct in Vienna, Brazil, Peru, and Rome during his tenure as conductor. I am sure my father would have found some fault with some of his performances because he was his own worst critic but he did the best he could with limited rehearsal and limited funds but by no means does this make him a hack conductor as Mr. Fleschler insinuates in the article.

    But he never gave up his dream to bring a back an orchestra to the city he loved so that professional musicians, not students, could bring music to South Floridians. As a musician himself, he well understood the long hours of study, discipline and dedication that bring music to life. In many instances, he did not accept pay so that the orchestra could get paid. He should be given more respect for the many sacrifices he made for his art and his dedication to the community.

    Although I no longer live in Miami, I am glad to see that South Florida finally has the flourishing arts community he so desired. I am even more pleased that the Miami Symphony has reached this milestone and that my father’s legacy endures. To get a better picture of the man, I invite readers to click on WLRN’s interview posted on the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection’s blog site: http://library.miami.edu/chc/2013/10/17/cuban-memories-commemorating-25-years-of-the-miami-symphony-orchestra/

  11. Posted Oct 23, 2013 at 8:14 pm by Monty Bloom

    I think the main question that everyone wants answered about MISO, is why haven’t they taken the following actions to repair their financial situation:

    1. Reduce orchestra size, particularly in the string section — MISO currently has a larger string section than comparable local orchestras

    2. Reduce the number of nonlocal players in the orchestra that require airfare reimbursements (very expensive!) — Ironically, the only other orchestra that also uses a lot of nonlocal players is the South Florida Symphony, which also has the same problem of not being able to meet payroll on time!

    3. Reduce the number of rehearsals — this is obviously not a great solution, but this is a common place to cut costs if all else fails.

    4. Use more local soloists — How much does it cost to bring in some of these high profile soloists? Some of these soloists I imagine charge $5k-$10k+ for an appearance. That’s great if this was the NY Philharmonic that can afford it, but maybe MISO should just use local soloists that are still very capable of playing concerti to a high standard.

    What is most offensive to the entire music scene is that MISO has not taken any measures to shore up its finances and is leaving the burden on the musicians.

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