This Maestro Is A Busy Man

by Kathleen Moye

FOR ANDREW KURTZ, music is the pulse of life. At work, he’s studying music, planning for concerts and performances, and keeping up with the administrative needs of running an all-volunteer, not-for-profit symphony. In addition, he serves on the Board of Directors at the Alliance for the Arts—and that’s just during the time he spends in Fort Myers! Throughout the year, he travels back and forth to Philadelphia, conducting operas and other performances there.

Where are you from and what brought you to Fort Myers?

I’m from Philadelphia—born and raised in Philadelphia. I moved to Fort Myers 16 years ago to work with Paul Nadler and the Southwest Florida Symphony as their Assistant Conductor. I also played violin in the orchestra. In the early years I would be here maybe 5 months a year… sort of a very young snowbird. After I started the Gulf Coast Symphony thirteen years ago, I became a more permanent resident, though, I still traveled continuously.

Tell me about the time you decided to make music your career.

That just sort of happened… A major milestone happened in my final year at the University of Virginia. I was taking the LSAT, fully intent on becoming an international lawyer. That night I was going to conduct a concert with the chamber orchestra I had started at the University three years earlier. All that kept running through my head was the Beethoven Symphony. I decided right then and there I would apply to conservatory and not law schools and just see what happened.

What do you love most about it?

Every day I discover something new. I do so many concerts every year that I am constantly exploring some of the greatest cultural masterpieces of our heritage. I feel like I am connecting with brilliant minds. And, when I do contemporary music, I get to work directly with people who share my world and experiences. I also love the process of teaching and helping people learn and share my love for music.

What inspires you creatively?

My inspirations come from the music itself and the people around me. Music is not a job for me, it is a lifestyle. I live, breathe, think music. I also don’t have a traditional job. Music is a 24/7, 365 day lifetime journey. I think that goes back to the previous question. The excitement of the journey is part of what keeps me going. Also, there is no greater feeling when things really go right, and musically it is all there. Granted that happens rarely, but it is those great moments which keep me going.

How do you balance taking charge of both the Executive Director administrative and the Maestro musical creation sides of the business?

It is a terrible juggling act. At this point in my life I wish I could spend more time doing the artistic side of the business, but the reality is I spend much of my days running two major organizations here and in Philadelphia. Beyond just the daily things necessary to make things happen, you spend much of your days raising money, writing grants, talking to people, meeting with people. It is the nature of having a company that is so integrated with this community. In some sense, the ‘fun’ is when I am on the podium. I am a real night owl, and when the days are crazy with meeting people and phone calls, I do my best work at night after most normal people are in bed. As far as learning scores, it is a good thing I travel back and forth to Philadelphia nearly every week! The airplane makes for a great place to study.

How do you share time between Fort Myers and Philadelphia? Can you describe a ‘typical’ year?

There is no typical year. The symphony rehearses weekly on Tuesday nights. I may have someone cover a rehearsal for me a few times a year so I can be in Philly, but basically I will spend a week or eight days in Fort Myers, then fly back to Philly for five or six days of constant meetings and rehearsals. I have a concert just about every weekend from October to June. In July I work at the Luzerne Music Center. August is my recovery month. September is when things start to get insane.

Can you compare the two different cities and their art scene?

Philadelphia is the fifth largest metropolitan area (six million people), centrally located in the Northeast corridor between Boston and DC. Southwest Florida is one of the fastest growing regions in the country, and it’s still a young city. I have seen so much growth in the last sixteen years. Philadelphia is one of the only cities in the United States that you can live and make a living as an actor, director or other theatrical venture. There are hundreds of theater companies, and dozens of musical organizations in the Philadelphia region and competition for dollars is fierce.

Having the PEW Charitable Trusts in your backyard makes a big difference. Plus, Philadelphians and the business community long ago recognized the impact that culture makes on the economy of the region, and they are more willing to invest in their cultural organizations. There is a tremendous Cultural Alliance that provides all sorts of services and support; and the Arts & Business Council, which really helps to connect business with various non-profit organizations. Not to mention, there is tremendous cooperation between the various groups. There is a supportive spirit and environment that goes beyond casual acknowledgement. We share ideas, mailing lists, concerns. Southwest Florida organizations are just beginning to learn the value of cooperation, and I think Southwest Florida has a severe lack of financial support on a foundation level for the arts. It is changing, and I see Southwest Florida in the coming years developing the same degree of cooperation and support amongst all the arts organizations and also the business community.

Tell me about the Gulf Coast Symphony. How many musicians participate? Who are they in their ‘day jobs’?

The Gulf Coast Symphony is a cross section of the people who live, work, or come to stay part time in this area. Our age ranges from as young as 13 to 80+ years. We have doctors, lawyers, nurses, homemakers, retirees, school teachers, former professional musicians, florists, realtors, and students in the orchestra. At least 70% of the orchestra live here year round. The orchestra grows from about 50 people in the fringe season (September–November) to at times as many as 70 people in the height of season. We always have room for more string players and there are often openings from year to year in the winds, brass and percussion sections.

We are about to embark on our longest season ever, starting rehearsals in September and going to nearly the end of May. There is a good chance we may add a pops or some sort of family concert during the summer months in the near future. It is a pretty major commitment. We really ask that the musicians invest in the orchestra. This year we are instituting required auditions for everyone who wants to play. That means all 70 people on our roster have to audition for me! It will be interesting.

What are the most special elements to you about working with an all volunteer orchestra?

The people. I wouldn’t still live here if I didn’t love the people I work with every day. These people mean so much to me…they work so hard…and their love and passion for music is infectious.

What is Gulf Coast Symphony working on for this season?

This is surely our most ambitious season. Our two classical access concerts, which are designed to introduce new people to symphonic music and add knowledge to those who are already fans will feature the Southwest Florida premieres of Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead and Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (it is his 90th birthday this year). For our Symphonic Sensation Pops concerts we are also hosting the US Premiere of the full orchestra version of Cantors: A Faith in Song, as was seen on PBS in January. I have toured with this show featuring three of the most famous cantors in the world, along with a 16 piece chamber orchestra.

We are also doing a Tribute to Irving Berlin in February , a Classical Broadway evening in March, and, in April, the world premiere of the Master & Margerita Suite with jazz trumpeter Gary Guthman and his wife, Goisa, a classical harpist who is considered a rock star in Europe. We will play three free family concerts in October, November and March and two free pops concerts in the Estero Community Park in February and March.

We also have several fun money raising events: a wine dinner, and auction & dinner, and also our Gala. Notice it revolves around food!

What do you think is a common misconception, or something that most people may not know about the classical music scene of today?

All music has a place. Classical music is a really poor term, invented by historians in the mid 18th century to try and describe a type of music that was the popular music of its time. It was a marketing strategy, actually… this is ‘classical’ music. I feel we should talk about symphonic music, or musical theater or opera…i.e. the genres…because people aren’t afraid to go to a new piece of theater, so why should you be afraid to go to a new piece of classical music. I think contemporary composers are speaking about our world… there is a lot there for all of us to discover.

How can you (or do you) work to change/clarify that issue from your podium?

As a music director I get to choose the repertoire. That is a great luxury. I get to conduct music I believe in. If I can’t passionately believe in a piece of music, I shouldn’t conduct it. Therefore, whatever it is that I am doing from the podium, my starting point is the music in front of me. I think an audience will read that enthusiasm and love. I know there are times my orchestra after a first reading react negatively to a piece of music. Yet there hasn’t been a single case, that after we worked on it, that they at least ‘got it’ and understood why I programmed it.

I notice you also have a strong interest in musical theatre in addition to opera and symphonic music. Are you working or planning on any projects in that arena?

Synergy Productions was a great success when we were able to perform at the Periwinkle Playhouse, which is now the Schoolhouse Theater. But with the Fould’s Theatre in Fort Myers becoming available, I am planning two months of professional musical theater in December and January, if all goes well. That, of course, depends mostly on money.

Dr. Andrew Kurtz is the 2007 Angels of the Arts Award recipient for Performing Artist of the Year. He completed his doctorate from the Peabody Conservatory and is the founder of the Gulf Coast Symphony in Fort Myers and the Center City Opera Theatre in Philadelphia. For information about the Gulf Coast Symphony, call 489-1800. •

from the September-October 2007 issue

Maestro Andrew Kurtz
"The Gulf Coast Symphony
is a cross section of the people
who live, work, or come to stay
part time in this area.
We have doctors, lawyers, nurses, homemakers, retirees, school teachers, former professional musicians, florists,
realtors and students
in the orchestra."
"The excitement of the journey is part of what keeps me going."