The Florida Orchestra’s history is steeped in orchestral tradition from both sides of Tampa Bay. In the 1930s, Tampa already had a strong orchestra scene with a WPA orchestra, and by the mid 1940s, the Tampa Symphony Orchestra was born, although it would be renamed the Tampa Philharmonic in 1959. Similarly, across the bay in St. Petersburg, community and city orchestras had already formed by the mid-to-late 1940s, and in 1950, members of the Carreno Music Club formed the St. Petersburg Symphony.
Talks of the two orchestras merging began to surface in 1964. Instrumental in these talks were the conductors of the two orchestras, Alfredo Antonini of the Tampa Philharmonic and Thomas Briccetti of the St. Petersburg Symphony. An official intent of the merger was made on November 23, 1966, and on that day, representatives from both the Tampa Philharmonic and the St. Petersburg Symphony traveled by boat to the center of Tampa Bay, where they married the two institutions in a symbolic union and became the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony. The St. Petersburg Times, now known as the Tampa Bay Times, noted in an article on November 24, 1966, “The mood was one of pride for the entire Tampa Bay area, not one city over another.”
The merger became official two years later, and the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony opened its first season on November 14, 1968, under the baton of 43-year-old Music Director Irwin Hoffman, who had previously guest conducted the Tampa Philharmonic. The program included Berlioz’ Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 47. That first season, the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony presented five concerts from November through April, performing each concert three times. The orchestra continued to perform as the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony until its name was changed to The Florida Orchestra in 1984.
Irwin Hoffman remained conductor until 1987, and during the 1988/89 season, Jahja Ling made his debut as music director to tremendous critical acclaim. Ling brought the orchestra into the international spotlight as he led them in the performance of the Star-Spangled Banner with Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV before a world-wide audience of 750 million. The Florida Orchestra made musical history as the first symphony orchestra to ever be invited to perform at a Super Bowl. The 2001/02 season marked Jahja Ling's final season as music director of The Florida Orchestra, and in May of 2002, Stefan Sanderling was appointed music director. In the summer of 2012, Sanderling’s departure from The Florida Orchestra was announced, although he continues his leadership as conductor emeritus and artistic advisor over the next two seasons as The Florida Orchestra moves forward with the search for the new music director.
Recently, the orchestra has had a series of successes despite an international recession that crippled much of the economy. In the fall of 2011, The Florida Orchestra announced its Accessibility Initiative, which effectively reduced ticket prices to all of its Masterworks and Pops concerts. Due to this initiative, as well as exciting programming on the 2011/2012 season, the orchestra saw a marked growth in subscriptions and single tickets, with a combined increase in paid attendance of 15%.
In addition to the Accessibility Initiative, the orchestra has announced a variety of partnerships and projects that further engage the orchestra with the Tampa Bay community. One of the most exciting partnerships included a collaboration with local NHL hockey team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, to produce the team’s new theme song, Be the Thunder. The anthem, composed by Gregory Smith, was accompanied by video footage of the Lightning and The Florida Orchestra as the hockey team took the ice at every home game at the Tampa Bay Times Forum during the 2011/2012 season. In addition to the Lightning’s new song, the orchestra worked with the hockey team to create a variety of youth concerts for children in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties during the 2011/2012 school year. Featuring TFO musicians, Lightning players, and even Lightning mascot Thunderbug as conductor, the youth concerts focused on how teamwork is involved with both hockey and music.
Also in 2011, the orchestra launched a multi-year cultural exchange with Cuba. After several months of communications with Cuba’s Music Institute of Havana (Instituto de Música de La Habana), The Florida Orchestra Wind Quintet performed in Havana at the end of September 2011, which was the first time since 1999 that a professional American orchestra had sent musicians to Cuba and only the second time since the 1959 revolution. The cultural exchange continues in November 2012, when The Florida Orchestra presents the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba as part of a Tampa Bay area residency that includes chamber music, an orchestra concert and master classes.
Another exciting prospect for the orchestra is the release of its CD on the Naxos label in the fall of 2012. Featuring music by Florida-influenced classical composer Frederick Delius, the recording includes The Florida Orchestra, The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, and baritone Leon Williams in a performance of Delius’ Sea Drift and Appalachia.
The Florida Orchestra is recognized as Tampa Bay's leading performing arts institution, one of the leading professional symphony orchestras in Florida, and one of the best orchestras in America. Through extraordinary musical performances, the orchestra inspires the people of Tampa Bay and serves as a leader and beacon for the musical arts throughout the state. Regardless of where performances occur, The Florida Orchestra is committed to serving the entire Tampa Bay area.
The Florida Orchestra performs nearly 100 concerts annually in the tri-city area of Tampa, Clearwater, and St. Petersburg. Concert series include Tampa Bay Times Masterworks, Progress Energy Morning Masterworks, Raymond James Pops, Coffee Concert matinees, free Pops in the Park Concerts, and educational Youth Concerts.
Pictured: Professor Lyman Wiltse conducts the Tampa Symphony Orchestra at an early concert.