Fifteen Years of Classic Music

by Carol DeFrank

IT'S BEEN 15 YEARS since twenty charter members of the Gulf Coast Symphony performed their first classical concert for a modest audience of 300. Since then, the Symphony's roster has grown to 70 musicians and the audience has increased tenfold.

During its tenure the symphony has accomplished everything it set out to accomplish and more. It has contributed to the cultural enrichment of Lee County, taken an active part in arts education and focused on the community, kids and concerts.

A black tie gala is planned for March 14 to mark this milestone. The symphony has chosen to pay tribute to the 65th anniversary of Hiwojema by performing a patriotic piece written by composer Chris Brubeck. PBS commentator Peter Thomas will be the guest speaker at the event to be held at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall.

Founded in 1996 by Dr. Andrew Kurtz, current music director, conductor and executive director, the all-volunteer orchestra has become the fourth largest nonprofit performing arts organization in Lee County.
The orchestra is made up of a cross section of musicians, aged 13-80, from throughout southwest Florida, as far away as Naples and Port Charlotte — doctors, lawyers, nurses, homemakers, teachers, florists, realtors, students and retirees.

The Symphony has created several important programs over the years, including the popular Magic Carpet family concerts, one-hour, free, interactive concerts where children sit on their own ‘magic carpet’ and are taken on a journey through a symphonic performance. The experience culminates with an ‘instrument petting zoo’.

Other programs the Symphony is involved with are Musical Gateways, a program that provides interaction in the classroom between artists and students of all socioeconomic levels; Classical Access Concerts, a hands-on approach open to all ages and described as ‘learn more, hear more, see more.’ Each work is preceded by a conversation with Dr. Kurtz, who explains the musical elements, composition and historical anecdotes of the music that will be played.

“We’ve also begun to have a solid relationship with the Southwest Florida Symphony. Between the two of us, this community has a backbone for culture usually found only in large communities” says Dr. Kurtz.

Art education is important to the director. “I can’t believe what the current (Lee County) school board has done to the arts and culture in this community. It’s a tragedy and a travesty, as well as shortsighted and potentially devastating to our children and cultural health. I don’t say this lightly as both of my parents were educators.”

Due to a poor economy, the past five years have been the most challenging of his 20-year career, but he has managed to increase the budget every year. It helps that the 18 member board is a working entity. Dr. Kurtz explains, “The board is required to provide work, wisdom and wealth. Twenty percent of our budget is their direct responsibility and 10% is the responsibility of the orchestra. Monies can come from a variety of sources: sponsorships, donations, ticket or program sales. Our dream is to make the symphony one of the premier orchestras in the United States.”

In an effort to be conservative, only one new educational initiative has been added this year. The Symphony has partnered with the Alliance for the Arts to implement an early childhood learning program. “It’ll cost only a fraction of a fraction of our budget,” Dr. Kurtz says.

A larger portion of the budget goes to fund the free family concerts that cost about $10,000 each to produce. Even though the musicians are volunteers, there are venues, music rights, advertising, and other costs that have to be paid for.

The Gulf Coast Symphony also participates in outreach and benefit concerts, such as the Fort Myers Soup Kitchen benefit, where they’ve helped to raise $180,000.

“We plan to be performing regularly in all Lee County communities, have a vibrant education and outreach program, expand thorough partnerships and have a healthy endowment in the bank to ensure the future. The key is to accomplish all this while being fiscally responsible. If the community continues to support us, we’ll be around a long time,” says Dr. Kurtz

Gulf Coast Symphony membership is open to qualified musicians by audition. According to Dr. Jonathan Daitch, an interventional pain management physician and lead violinist, this is a good thing. “Having to audition inspires us to practice and play at our highest level. Part of our success is the variety of challenging music we perform, many of which has never been brought to this area in the past, so it’s Andrew’s job to get the best musicians available.”

The orchestra’s October-May performance schedule has grown to over a dozen concerts: a series of three symphonic pops concerts, a New Year’s Eve gala and concert, three free family concerts held in at-risk communities, and two free outdoor park concerts in Estero and Cape Coral;.

“There are 80 rehearsals scheduled to accomplish all of this,” explains Alfonso Giordan, owner of Mario’s Pizzeria & Restaurant in Cape Coral and a principal viola player who has been with the orchestra since the onset. “We play major masterpieces so rehearsals are important. I have and still could, play with orchestra’s where I get paid, but I’d rather play with the Gulf Coast Symphony for free because this is a musician’s orchestra. I’m always urging Florida Gulf Coast University students to play with us because they aren’t going to have the opportunity to play these kinds of pieces anywhere else.”

“Andrew has great rehearsal techniques,” says Diane Coffman, board member and co-principal cello. “I come from San Francisco and played on a pretty high level. Andrew is one of the most talented conductors I’ve worked with. He’s a regular guy who puts in an extraordinary amount of work. I wish someone would establish a trust or endowment fund to take care of the orchestra’s basic needs. Then we could really do some cool things.”

Dr. Daitch agrees. “Andrew chases very ambitious music. He knows what we’re capable of and pushes us, in a good way. We always rise to the occasion to accomplish what we set out to do. We are able to accomplish so much because he has wonderful contacts in the music world and we get to tap into it. We attract world renowned talent from the best concert halls in the United States.“

The 2009-2010 season includes thirteen concerts and new productions of Puccini’s La Boheme, L’elisir d’amore, Un ballo in Maschera, Rigoletto, and Magic Flute, the North American premiere of Edward Rushton’s The Shops, and the East Coast premiere of Jake Heggie’s new chamber opera, Three Decembers with the Center City Opera Theater.

Dr. Kurtz sums up the feelings of the organization. “When you’re passionate and believe in what you’re doing, work isn’t a burden, it’s a joy and you find the energy necessary to do the job. Music is not a job for me or the members of the orchestra, it is a lifestyle. I live, breathe, think music. I would love to have a year round schedule. I would also like to spend more time on the artistic side, but right now I spend lots of time raising money, writing grants, and meeting with people. Maybe someday....”

With that attitude concert goers could expect another 15 years of great music.

For more information about the Gulf Coast Symphony, call 277-1700. •

from the January-February 2010 issue

Gulf Coast Symphony

Andrew Kurtz

Born and raised in Philadelphia, music has been a part of Dr. Andrew Kurtzs’ life since he started taking violin lessons at the age of five, but it wasn’t until his final year at the University of Virginia that he decided to make music his career. Dr. Kurtz completed his Doctoral studies in conducting at the Peabody Conservatory and is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia where he received his Master’s degree in Music History and a Bachelor of Arts in music and drama. He came to Florida 16 years ago to work with Paul Nadler and the Southwest Florida Symphony as Assistant Conductor.

Dr. Kurtz is also General & Artistic Director and founder of the Center City Opera Theater, a professional opera company in Philadelphia, where he has led nearly four dozen productions including regional premiers of Adamo’s Little Women, Floyd’s Of Mice and Men and the world premieres of Lowell Liebermann’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (chamber orchestra version) and Peter Westergaard’s The Always Present Present.

Dr. Kurtz is the international tour conductor of Cantors and the Music Director of the Florida Jewish Philharmonic Orchestra.


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