Symphonic Celebration

by Julie Clay

“We have retired
professionals and
professional teachers,
performing alongside
people who play as
an avocation.”
College students and
music teachers play
alongside dentists
and accountants.

“Our ultimate goal is to
bring members of our
community together,
using symphonic music
as the means of
creating that synergy.”

FORT MYERS' GULF COAST SYMPHONY is proudly celebrating its 20th anniversary season this year, and boy are they excited. The stellar lineup of concerts, educational programs and community outreach is sure to please audiences of all ages. It’s quite remarkable, coming from an organization comprised mostly of volunteers taking a break from their day jobs.

Symphony Founder, Music and Executive Director Maestro Dr. Andrew Kurtz shares a preview of the 2014-2015 season: “The 20th Anniversary season will highlight the best of what makes Gulf Coast Symphony unique and impactful in our community, continue the organization’s tradition of innovative programming and dynamic symphonic performances. And our active community engagement and commitment to arts education.

“Our repertoire appeals to a wide demographic,” he continues.“ “Family concerts, which include educational children’s activities and our Musical Discovery Zone; the popular Symphonic Pops concerts with guest performers such as the Brubeck Brothers Jazz Quartet, Tony award-winning Broadway stars and Cirque performers; classical concerts of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and even a fully-staged opera, Verdi’s La Traviata. Kurtz adds, “Our classical concerts feature soloists who are rising young professionals. Through our partnerships with Virginia Warring Piano Competition, Astral Artists and the Sphinx Competition, we present their winners in concert, in solo recital and artist residencies. Gulf Coast Symphony also partners with other local cultural organizations, including the Fort Myers Symphonic Mastersingers, Florida Gulf Coast University, the Alliance of the Arts, and the Florida Repertory Theater, as well as the local library systems to co-present programs that have broad community appeal.”

Audiences can also look forward to a 20th anniversary concert at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall on February 22. ‘The Glory of Gershwin’ celebrates the music of the great George Gershwin, hosted by guest artist and Broadway star, Christiane Noll. A black tie dinner anniversary celebration will be held in the newly renovated lobby of the Hall following the show.

The growth of a program as varied and exciting as Gulf Coast Symphony’s can be traced back to Dr. Kurtz’s arrival to the area 23 years ago as Assistant Conductor and Education Director of the Southwest Florida Symphony. In this role, he was active in the community, where he discovered a large number of musicians who no longer had opportunities to play in the symphonic environment.

“The other orchestra had transferred from community structure to professional structure. That change impacts rehearsal schedules and time demands. A professional symphony generally rehearses three days prior to performance. For someone who’s retired or working another profession, that’s a huge time commitment. I decided that I would start a new community-based group,” he explains. “I felt that there was absolutely a need for a community orchestra in the area.”

Dr. Kurtz remembers how that first year, even with very little advertising and some flyers, a large number of musicians volunteered for the new orchestra. Many of them are still members today, including their concertmaster and principal viola.

He notes, “We have retired professionals and professional teachers, performing alongside people who play as an avocation. There are doctors in our organization.” Music is a popular hobby for medical professionals and many Symphony members are healthcare professionals.

Operating as a community orchestra allows Gulf Coast Symphony to give volunteer musicians a place to perform, while using the option to hire additional professional musicians based on the needs of individual concerts. Twenty years in, he is also noticing the trend of younger musicians joining the organization. College students and music teachers play alongside dentists and accountants.

“Members of the Symphony have auditioned and are on our orchestra roster. Some of them are only in Southwest Florida four months a year. 60% are year-round residents and 40% are snowbirds,” Dr. Kurtz affirms. “On average I get one phone call or email a month from people who are looking where to spend their retirement years. We are part of that decision. Some of them will try out the area first and try us out as well.”

“There are certainly months in the year I know there can be demands that are difficult for people.’ he admits. “Part of our structure allows for players to skip a concert if need be to balance their lives.” He adds, “You need to be able to handle the schedule and technical demands of the music. Our repertoire is not the easiest.”

Kurtz explains. “Our ultimate goal is to bring members of our community together, using symphonic music as the means of creating that synergy.”

Growing out of the desire within the members of the Symphony to perform great works of music is the call to share the music in an educational environment focusing largely on those who need it the most — at risk kids.

“The benefits of music education are profound, and have a significant, lasting impact not only on brain development, but also on social development,” Dr. Kurtz stresses, adding, “Children develop goal-directed behavior and skills that increase academic and social success. Furthermore, such programs are known to improve self-esteem and self-perception so that students can achieve their full potential. This translates into increased school attendance, academic motivation and ultimately, achievement.”

“For the past 11 years we have been the entertainment for the Community Cooperative Ministries soup kitchen benefit concert each year. We also do free outdoor concerts,” he continues. “We created Taste of the Cape last year as a partnership with the Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce. Now it’s the highlight cultural event of the year. We perform our Sunset Concert at the end of the day.” Taste of Cape Coral, on Sunday, March 1, is the finale of a 20-day stretch of free music reaching all corners of Lee County throughout January and February.

Kurtz notes, “We have a partnership with the Lee County Library system, doing a symphony storytime for ages 2-5. We read a story with a musician in it, and a musician will be there to show and play their instrument. This is happening at five different branches of the library system. We’re also doing two Music Discovery Zones, where performers are coming in for free afternoon preview concerts outside the library.” Also at each library branch, Gulf Coast Symphony has instituted a symphony pass that can be checked out and used to attend a community concert.

“It’s a way to provide access to a concert which some may not be able to afford to attend,” Dr. Kurtz explains. He also shares information about an exciting new partnership with the Harlem Heights Foundation called ‘MusicWorks!’. This after-school program is offered four days a week, 11/2 hours a day for 35 kids. Geared for grades 1-4, ‘MusicWorks!‘ provides musical instrument instruction, as well as the background to help students grow as students, musicians and people.

The education doesn’t stop with the younger crowd. Gulf Coast Symphony is sponsoring an online course for college students. Each 4-week course is free. Dr. Kurtz highlights the particulars, “Each week there are about five or six lessons that are 5-8 minutes long, covering the lives of the three main composers we are studying this year: Mahler, Verdi and Beethoven.” he adds, “It’s all part of our lifelong learning activities. This is a college-level class but taught for someone who knows nothing about classical music. It’s being taught by two people with doctorates in music, myself and a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. The thing about the course is that students participating in the class have the opportunities to interact through message boards.”
Dr. Kurtz explains that it all happens from a shared vision for the community between their Board of Directors and members of the orchestra, “When you do things successfully and people come to your hall and get excited about what you’re doing in the community, they become huge supporters. It’s my job as artistic leader to ensure that our programs remain varied, interesting and dynamic. Overall there are over 100 events. He continues, “Our mission is to bring this community together through music. We want to be able to have the largest civic footprint possible to bring our love and passion for music. It’s about going into the communities where people live and impacting their lives. All of our growth in the next 10 years is not with our performances, but in growing our engagement activities and lifelong activities for adults.”

A full schedule of concerts, events and community activities can be found at www.Gulfcoastsymphony.org. For more information, call 277-1700. •

November-December 2014