The state of Miami’s classical music scene: Part Two–A call for a new Miami orchestra

By Lawrence Budmen


The Cleveland Orchestra has reduced its annual Miami residency to two weekends from a peak of four in previous years, diminishing both the number of concerts the orchestra plays at the Arsht Center and the ensemble’s educational activities in the community.

The Cleveland residency came about following the bankruptcy and dissolution of the Florida Philharmonic in 2003. The Philharmonic was supposed to be one of the resident organizations at the aborning Arsht Center in downtown Miami. Searching for a symphonic alternative, the inaugural Arsht management team outsourced the role to the Clevelanders.  (One of the selling points made for Cleveland’s initial three week residency was that the orchestra’s players, both individually and as a corporate unit, would do outreach in the community.)

Eventually the residency and its ancillary activities increased to four weekends, entailing three separate visits during the season. While an undeniably excellent orchestra, the Clevelanders’ concerts could be variable in quality, particularly those led by the former residency principal guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero.

Still, there were many outstanding performances, especially of symphonies by Mahler and Shostakovich. Apparently two weekends is the new normal and the orchestra’s Miami agenda entails just two programs for a total of four performances. With only one week between the Friday and Saturday evening concerts (plus attendant rehearsal time), the currently scant communal outreach efforts will likely be reduced even further.

Miami is the largest city in the United States without a full-time (or nearly year-round) professional symphony orchestra. The Cleveland arrangement was always a bandaid, rather than a solution, for that situation. The Arsht Center’s slender four-concert classical series (which often retreads overly familiar names like Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Yo-Yo Ma) is not a remedy either.

(Likewise, in Fort Lauderdale, the Broward Center’s classical series has largely become a mélange of film music and crossover programs. Next season’s only bona fide classical offering will be the Brussels Philharmonic–not one of Europe’s major orchestras.)

The New World Symphony under the artistic direction of Michael Tilson Thomas plays a robust schedule of symphonic, chamber and contemporary music programs at the New World Center in Miami Beach. Custom designed for the orchestral academy by renowned architect Frank Gehry, the 756-seat concert hall is a stunning gem, both architecturally and acoustically. The outdoor Wallcasts of some concerts featuring projections of the performance in surround sound offer a uniquely Miami Beach experience.

Still, New World is primarily a training organization and not a concert presenter. The laudatory professional education focus for young professional musicians will always remain its core mission. Also the small size of its auditorium is not always suitable for a major metropolitan symphony orchestra. (The New World plays just three concerts each season at the Arsht.)

Moreover, one-third of the orchestra’s players change each season as the academy’s fellows complete their three year tenure, move on to professional opportunities and new players arrive to take their place. While the standard has been consistently high in recent seasons, the revolving nature of the ensemble’s personnel inevitably has invariably led to some inconsistent performances from one year to the next. Despite some superb performances, by its very nature the New World cannot take the place of a first-rate professional orchestra.

In the wake of the Florida Philharmonic’s disbandment, several local ensembles were formed to fill some of the symphonic void. Each has contributed worthy programs but does not appear to be in a position to become Miami’s major symphonic organization.

The already-active Miami Symphony Orchestra has moved most of  its performances downtown to the Arsht. Under the direction of Eduardo Marturet, this once scrappy ensemble has greatly improved and given some fine concerts. Yet, at the very moment the orchestra’s artistic fortunes have risen, it seems to have morphed into a pops orchestra. Only one or two serious programs have been presented in recent seasons. The rest of MISO’s schedule seems to be devoted to fashion shows accompanied by the orchestra, and performances with pop artists. Persistent financial problems also mitigate against this ensemble becoming Miami’s major orchestra.

The South Florida Symphony Orchestra is an outgrowth of what was originally the Key West Symphony. It continues to play in that southernmost Florida city as well as in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton. The orchestra has experimented with several Miami venues, most recently the Arsht Center. Under the direction of Key West native Sebrina Maria Alfonso, the group has given some strong and well-received concerts but it only plays three or four programs per season. Further, its Florida Philharmonic-like nomadic nature discourages a strong identification with and from the community.

In 2006 conductor Elaine Rinaldi formed Orchestra Miami with some former members of the Florida Philharmonic. After initially giving several standard symphonic programs of variable quality, the ensemble has substantially changed its programming format. In recent seasons the orchestra has played al fresco concerts before large and appreciative audiences and has offered several ambitious, site specific presentations. In 2017 Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated with a performance of the late American composer Marvin David Levy’s oratorio Atonement at Temple Israel in downtown Miami. This past season saw a concert of American chamber music rarities played poolside at a renovated hotel on  Biscayne Boulevard and a fully staged production of Mozart’s Masonic opera The Magic Flute at Scottish Rite Temple. The orchestra’s performance level has continually improved and Rinaldi’s conducting and interpretive skills have sharpened.

These recent major presentations have been an important contribution to Miami’s cultural life and, hopefully, Rinaldi will continue this type of ambitious programming. The lack of major, big name soloists, however, and the fact that Orchestra Miami does not play at the city’s leading concert hall make it doubtful that it would someday become Miami’s symphonic centerpiece.

Local cynics will contend that Miami can never support a professional symphony orchestra, either financially or in terms of a regular audience. Yet Miami-Dade County does not lack for financial resources. For awhile, it seemed like a new sports arena was being built and funded every year.

Starting up and sustaining a major orchestra will require a pool of donors and foundations’ assistance so that if any one patron withdraws support (for whatever reason), a financial crisis will not ensue. That kind of consortium of resources should be possible.

Miami today is a very different place than the city was when the Florida Philharmonic ceased operations nearly fifteen years ago. Condominiums and apartment complexes dot the skyline along Biscayne Boulevard adjacent to the Arsht Center. Mary Brickell Village (west of Brickell Avenue with its burgeoning condo and hotel scene) is a trendy boutique and restaurant complex that draws large crowds.

There is clearly a new audience in place for concerts in downtown Miami as the Cleveland performances have proved. Unlike in past decades, Miami now has a first-class performing arts facility.

The time has come for a new professional symphony orchestra to rise—-an orchestra for Miami–not Fort Lauderdale, Broward, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach like the Florida Philharmonic.

There should be no problem attracting good potential players. In addition to the area’s freelance talent pool, the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, New World School of the Arts and Florida International University music departments graduate many talented students each year. Many of the New World Symphony alumni, past and present, would turn out for open auditions if only to stay in South Florida with its non-musical allures and attractions.

Miami’s position as gateway to the Americas could be highlighted in programming major scores by composers from both the U.S. and Latin America. Have any of the twelve symphonies by Brazil’s Heitor Villa-Lobos ever been played in Miami? Other than the popular Sinfonía India, have any of Mexican composer Carlos Chavez’s other five symphonies been programmed locally?

A major-league conductor, with a resume of important engagements, would need to be selected as music director to attract public support and build and maintain performance standards. This ensemble’s central mission should be to present the great orchestral works of the past and today with first-rate direction and soloists—not to function as a pops orchestra, crossover group, or back-up band for Andrea Bocelli.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s retrenchment has provided a serendipitous opportunity to do the right thing for classical music in Miami. That opportunity should not be missed.

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7 Responses to “The state of Miami’s classical music scene: Part Two–A call for a new Miami orchestra”

  1. Posted Jun 20, 2018 at 12:03 pm by Ivan David Gray

    …it was assumed from the outset although NEVER talked about that Miami would never support a major orchestra and the New World Symphony would be the answer!!

  2. Posted Jun 23, 2018 at 7:56 am by Daniel Lewis

    Lawrence, you made and support an excellent case. Well done.

  3. Posted Jun 24, 2018 at 1:08 pm by Doreen & Byron Kruilewtch

    It Is about time, Larry. Great article! Doreen & Byron Krulewitch

  4. Posted Jun 25, 2018 at 8:26 am by phyllis ehrich

    Thank you so much Lawrence. This is excellent. I hope it is only the first step. Phyllis Ehclich

  5. Posted Jun 25, 2018 at 9:49 pm by Elaine Rinaldi

    Thank you for your timely and interesting commentary on this important issue for our city. I would like to add a few comments of my own to yours.

    The fact that Orchestra Miami does not perform at the “leading concert halls” should not be an exclusionary factor in anyone’s consideration of what constitutes an important artistic contributor to our community nor should it decrease the potential to become “Miami’s symphonic centerpiece”. Not performing at the Arsht Center is an economic choice and not an indicator of quality. While we would love to perform regularly at the Arsht Center, I cannot justify the fact that by doing so, we would make it prohibitively expensive and difficult for the vast majority of our audience to attend. One of the most important parts of our mission is to make high-quality concerts affordable for everyone. The reality is that operating a large symphonic body such as Orchestra Miami is extremely expensive. In order to be able to pay our excellent musicians the wages that they deserve, choices need to be made so that we can maintain our high level of performance.

    I have of course much more to say on this topic, but for now, I think it’s enough to say that I agree with you completely- the time is ripe for Miami to get serious about forming a full-time professional orchestra to serve its community. In addition to our public performances, Orchestra Miami has been serving our community through in-school performances, open dress rehearsals for students, creating after-school music programs for underprivileged children and providing many, many opportunities for parents to introduce their kids to classical music. I am proud and honored to work with some of the most experienced professionals in South Florida and I know that I speak for them when I say that we would welcome an opportunity to have our opinions heard on this important matter. Thanks for starting the discussion!

    Warmly, Elaine Rinaldi
    Artistic Director, Orchestra Miami

  6. Posted Jun 28, 2018 at 2:55 pm by Geoff Hale

    I find it totally ironic the Dan Lewis, of all people ,the man who orchestrated the demise of the Florida Philharmonic, has the nerve to even comment. He was from Cleveland, he was the Cleveland orchestras biggest donor, and some how, at the total incompetence of the FPO board managed to become CEO of the FPO with one goal in mind. Destroy the FPO, so he could get a residency for his real true love orchestra the CO.
    There will never be another orchestra a great as the FPO here giving a full time job.
    Elaine and orchestra Miami have done well to employ the best musicians and put on some great concerts. I applaud her.
    Now the the Cleveland Orchestra is reduced to sucking up half the money they use to, that could have been used for the FPO or other local orchestras in Miami, let’s hope they stay away forever.

  7. Posted Jul 03, 2018 at 2:42 pm by Gunther Karger

    Yes, if Miami is culturally ready to assume its rightful place as “America’s International Gateway” and prepared to take that step beyond being “Havana North” and provide affordable music for all people, Miami deserves and should have its own “prima” orchestra. This has eluded Miami for many years and just maybe, the Miami’s power brokers can get together finally with a single focus to bring true culture to our area.

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