The state of Miami’s classical music scene: Part One–The quiet death of Festival Miami

By Lawrence Budmen

Thomas Sleeper's concerts with the Frost Symphony Orchestra were a consistent highlight of Festival Miami through the years.

Thomas Sleeper’s concerts with the Frost Symphony Orchestra were consistent highlights of Festival Miami.

The announcement this past season that the Cleveland Orchestra has reduced its annual Miami residency to just two weekends–from a peak of four weeks in previous years–has received much attention. Less noticed was that the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music has quietly shuttered Festival Miami (with no public announcement). The annual showcase for guest artists,  Frost faculty and students, the festival frequently presented wide and innovative programming for 34 years.

Founded in 1983 by former UM music school dean William Hipp, the festival was for three decades the opening event of the music season. Spanning from late September to mid-October, Festival Miami spotlighted celebrated guest artists and, for a while, even hosted visiting orchestras and chamber ensembles. New York’s American Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Philharmonia Orchestra of London and chamber orchestras from Texas, South America and the Italian city of L’Aquila appeared in the early years of the festival.

The L’Aquila musicians were ensemble in residence for two festival seasons that featured  thematic programs devoted to Italian music (including a fully staged production of Rossini’s infrequently performed La Cambiale di Matrimonio) and music from the art deco era (featuring performances of such rarities as Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel, Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theater and the complete original version of George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony with the late Ivan Davis as piano soloist). In 1995, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes was feted with an extensive series of piano recitals and concerto performances.

Early festival editions were predominantly devoted to classical music with a smattering of pop and jazz events. Over time the pop evenings became more prominent, especially after Shelly Berg succeeded Hipp as Frost dean. Berg is a highly lauded jazz pianist, arranger and composer who has expanded the school’s jazz programs and faculty. Yet in recent years, the jazz events have tended to crowd classical music out of its former presence at Festival Miami. It was hard to avoid the feeling that the handful of classical events over the course of three or four weeks were just window dressing.

In 2016 Festival Miami was moved from the fall to January-February 2017, ostensibly because of changes in the school term’s calendar. During the midst of the concert season with multiple events on many nights throughout South Florida, the festival’s few events tended to get lost in the artistic shuffle.

Still, even with less public attention and the classical component decimated, the festival could still produce unique performances. In what turned out to be the festival’s final edition in 2017, two concerts were standouts of South Florida’s entire music season. An 80th birthday tribute to composer Steve Reich and an all-American program (including two world premieres) by the excellent Frost Symphony Orchestra under the recently departed Thomas Sleeper were true festival events that were unlikely to occur as part of any regular concert series. Sleeper consistently devised serious programs, frequently spotlighting contemporary works. That is why the loss of Festival Miami leaves a void in the area’s musical life.

Asked about Festival Miami’s unpublicized disappearance from the Frost concert schedule, former Festival Miami staff member Marianne Mijares (now the university’s director of Corporate Relations and Events)  replied via e-mail “In an effort by the UM Frost School of Music to rebrand and deliver year round programming, Festival Miami has been rebranded as Frost Music Live. The series will feature world renowned guest artists” as well as faculty and students.

Yet last season’s Frost concert calendar listed no major classical guest artists. Basically the scheduled concerts amounted to mostly student events with a smattering of faculty members. There was nothing comparable to the festival weekend in 2011 when the late composer-conductor-educator Gunther Schuller participated in all of those roles.

Yes, Frost is cosponsoring the Frost Chopin Festival later this month, which offers a handful of classical piano events. But the kind of innovative programming that typified Festival Miami at its best is apparently gone for good—and that is a major loss for Miami.

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7 Responses to “The state of Miami’s classical music scene: Part One–The quiet death of Festival Miami”

  1. Posted Jun 11, 2018 at 11:43 pm by Barry Diamond


  2. Posted Jun 12, 2018 at 4:29 pm by Daniel Vinoly

    Not surprising, considering who the School selected to replace the irreplaceable Bill Hipp

  3. Posted Jun 13, 2018 at 9:21 pm by JB Floyd

    A great example of what happens when a local institution of higher learning, UM, ignores its responsibility as a leader for the culture of its community to acquiesce to the popular taste.

    The years of showcasing classical music and the experimental music of the moment by the
    program providers of Festival Miami were exactly the kind of thing that every major institution in this country does continually. Choosing a personal genre of music while minimizing the classical offerings dear to an established and enthusiastically devoted following is responsible for Festival Miami’s demise.

    Let’s hope that the FSOM will regain its appreciation of musical diversity and return to the true charge of a school of music which is to present the broad and catholic history of the music that has developed from the ancient Greeks until the present day.

  4. Posted Jun 19, 2018 at 12:53 am by Ivan David Gray

    ….a quiet death perhaps but I suspect a noisy funeral when the classical music lovers of Miami realize that they have been betrayed yet again by souless pragmatism.

    I had the honour and privilege of conducting many of the performances of Festival Miami in its first years. It was the truly inspired brainchild of Bill Hipp to galvanize the U.of M. School of Music and place it once more at the forefront of Miami’s musical scene by front running the yearly concert season. Bill then went on to create the funding that resulted in the Frost School of Music and put the school on the map nationally.

    Thom Sleeper played his part to perfection by raising the standards of the Frost Symphony Orchestra to that which was required of such a noble undertaking.

    Sadly yet again in the history of the arts in Miami defeat has been snatched from the jaws of victory!!

  5. Posted Jun 19, 2018 at 11:12 am by Richard Todd

    The Festival’s demise should not be unfairly blamed on a change of leadership at the Frost School. I have been a faculty member at Frost since 2009, so I cannot speak to the years before my arrival. I can speak to my observation of attendance numbers at the years I have been here.

    Coming from Los Angeles as principal horn of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for 35 years, and a recording artist on more than 2,000 motion pictures, I am fully aware of the necessity for experimental and innovative programming. I am also fully aware that without an audience to perform for, these very noble ideas cannot sustain themselves.

    There are many innovative things that are happening at Frost, and the faculty here contains many world class – and famous- artists in their own right. The jazz department is no bigger now than it was when I got here, and has had many years of accolades long before Dean Berg took his position. In fact, the most significant changes have happened in the classical department, where fundraising for scholarships has grown immensely.

    The Frost Symphony Orchestra is a fantastic ensemble, but it was not so when I joined the faculty. Thom Sleeper is one of the finest conductors and educators I have ever seen, and his loss will be felt by all of us.

    The fact that concerts need audiences and financial support cannot be ignored, and my observation is that as times change, so do circumstances. ( By the way – Gunther Schuller was one of my closest friends and mentors. I suggested his residency and Shelly Berg immediately supported the idea).

    There is a problem all over South Florida, not just at Festival Miami. Could Festival Miami have continued to exist in the format originally presented? That is a question left to debate by many.

    But when an area as large as South Florida has no center to its classical arts concept, and small organizations, such as those you mentioned in part two, are struggling to survive to the point that there are concerts being presented and the musicians are not getting paid because of a lack of support or other reasons, and a great number of people in the community believe that musicians from elsewhere are better than those that exist here, then those organizations have no choice but to program concerts that can help keep the lights on.

    I was on the Festival Miami advisory board, and the biggest issue was how to pay for it. There were many things that were discussed, and classical music performances were never shoved to the back burner in any meetings i attended. I agree – I wish there were more performances of the music of Ginastera, Villa Lobos, Chavez, Revueltas, Frank Zappa, Gunther Schuller, etc. Hopefully that will change.

    But there needs to be bodies in the seats and sponsorship that is willing to support what is here rather than what is not here. That the current state of local classical music support is what it is – be it Festival Miami or any of the small orchestras trying to survive – cannot, nor should not, have blame placed on any single entity or individual.

    This is a much larger problem that should be addressed in a very large way by all who love classical music. Count me in.

  6. Posted Jun 19, 2018 at 11:59 am by Richard Todd

    One last note –

    Frank Sinatra once defined a critic as “someone who comes in after the battle is over and shoots the wounded”.

    Oh – and wasn’t James Galway in residence at FSOM this past year? Twice? Teaching, mentoring, performing.

    Only William Hipp – someone I respect greatly – can tell you if the orchestras mentioned as a part of the past were solely brought in to perform at Festival Miami, or if their appearance coincided with a tour in progress. What I do know is that the budget certainly was never there while I was on the advisory board, and I cannot attest to how many orchestras tour through Miami at the time of Festival Miami now as opposed to 30 years ago. Something to ponder.

  7. Posted Jun 19, 2018 at 12:46 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    [Editor’s Note: SFCR has received an official response from Dean Shelly Berg, which is here posted in its entirely. LAJ]

    South Florida Classical Review plays a vital role in our community’s culture. Larry Budmen fastidiously prepares for his concert reviews, which are always thoughtful, well written and perceptive. However, in the recent story on Festival Miami there are misstatements and inaccurate conjecture about classical music in the Frost School of Music. Unfortunately, no one from SFCR contacted me or other faculty for the facts, so I will use this opportunity to clarify.

    The decision to evolve away from a month-long Festival Miami was made in consultation with the Frost School’s Performance Committee, and with unanimous consent from the performance faculty. Over the last decade, music programming in the Greater Miami area in the fall has increased dramatically, along with the evening traffic on US 1 and the Palmetto Expressway. These factors plus some changes in the University of Miami’s academic calendar made it more and more difficult to fill our auditorium 23-25 times within a 4-5 week time span. Consequently, we decided to rebrand our concert seasons as Frost Music Live, featuring large and small ensembles, guest performers and groups, and faculty artists. We didn’t abandon Festival Miami, but rather decided to disperse 25+ special concerts and master classes throughout the entire September-April season and call those events our Signature Series. This was not done without notice, as SFCR implied. We issued a press release, sent multiple eblasts to patrons, mailed out brochures outlining our new season, and featured the information on our website and social media. Apparently some were confused by the change, and so last January we disseminated a clarifying eblast called “What Happened to Festival Miami?”

    There was an implication in the article that as dean I have “crowded out” classical programming. They stated that I am a “jazz pianist who has expanded the jazz department program and faculty.” Both of these statements are not accurate. The Festival that I inherited from my predecessor Bill Hipp was appropriately eclectic, given the range of music we teach at the Frost School, with nearly half of the concerts outside of classical music. Our patrons know that along with my love for jazz music, my university degrees are in classical piano, and that I perform classical music on campus with students and colleagues every year. I continue to concertize around the world as both a jazz and classical pianist. I have not expanded the jazz faculty nor program. It was among the top few in the nation when I arrived 11 years ago, and it still is.

    What did change was the Frost School had formerly provided space on its Festival Miami program for outside presenters, and some of those organizations no longer exist. That fact accounts for a sight change in the festival’s musical balance.

    A final word on classical music in the Frost School – it is fabulous! Over the last decade we have tripled the number of graduate fellows in classical music receiving full tuition scholarships and stipends, while significantly augmenting undergraduate scholarships. Our classical faculty is among the best in the world. I oversaw the hiring of 23 of the current 34 classical music professors, and I elevated 4 others from lecturer to professor status. This stellar faculty has attracted world-class students. SFCR has chronicled the dramatic rise in the quality of our orchestra, our innovative and superb opera productions, stellar wind ensemble, and magnificent pianists. Student composers are also winning prestigious competitions and commissions. Our innovative curricula are so effective and groundbreaking that the Dean of the Eastman School of Music recently stated we are a “Gold Standard for 21st Century Music Schools” in a re-accreditation study conducted with other deans for the National Association Schools of Music.

    Our classical alumni and recent grads are populating top orchestras and chamber ensembles, including Miami’s own Florida Grand Opera, Miami City Ballet, Seraphic Fire, Nu-Deco Ensemble, New World Symphony, Boca Festival of the Arts, and more.

    We also provide sustained outreach to over 700 underserved kids in our community, in a program I initiated. Almost all of these kids are studying classical instruments.

    The prestigious classical music publication Musical America now lists the Frost School as one of the Top 50 music schools in the WORLD. I am exceedingly proud to lead a faculty who have created one of the world’s greatest, most relevant, and most innovative music schools.

    I love classical music. It is at my core and always will be.

    Yet as a dean I am responsible for helping to advance the education of over 700 music students studying a myriad of styles. It is not at the expense of classical music. The cross-collaboration with other programs is part of what makes us unique, and why are new grads are in such high demand. It’s why our bassoon professor will soon premiere a work for amplified bassoon, our wind ensemble conductor is renowned for premiering new works, and our classical percussion professor from Bulgaria is collaborating with our Latin jazz piano faculty. It is not at the expense of the study and performance of classics that we all treasure, but an exciting extension that is paving the way for future audiences to engage and grow.

    Last year was a transitional one for us as we bid adieu to the name and scheduling of Festival Miami, and Frost Music Live! looks fantastic next season – including sixteen Signature Series events in classical music, featuring our students and faculty, and renowned guest performers, composers, and conductors. Come and enjoy!

    Shelton Berg
    Dean, Patricia L. Frost Professor
    Phillip and Patricia Frost School of Music

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