Remember when fire alarms went off in Beethoven’s 9th?

A look back at 3 decades of covering the orchestra. Tell us your TFO stories, too.

Intrepid reporter Kurt Loft pecks a manual typewriter in his kitchen circa early 1980s, about the time he started writing for the Tampa Tribune.

You know you’re getting old when you find in a desk drawer a ticket stub to the opening of The Florida Orchestra’s 1981-82 season.

I remember the night like it was 37 years ago. It was called the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony back then, and this was my very first review for the Tampa Tribune, where I had just been hired as its classical music critic and feature writer. I was a geek with an ill-fitting jacket, loud tie, and shoes a size too small ─ but fueled with a passion for the great composers.

It was a formidable assignment. The concert started at 8:30 p.m. at the old McKay Auditorium at the University of Tampa and didn’t get out until nearly 11 p.m., leaving me gasping to make deadline. Even more formidable was the guy at the podium – Music Director Irwin Hoffman – a daunting figure with mutton chops and little tolerance for late-comers, talkers, and program rustlers.

All went well, from the national anthem to a program of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3, Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 and Dvorak’s Carnival Overture. It would be the first of hundreds of TFO concerts for me, and the beginning of a treasured musical journey stretching over three decades.

Today, the 50th anniversary season offers a chance to reflect on those years, and some of the musical amusements along the way.

McKay Auditorium offered its share of them. Originally built in 1925 as Tampa’s Municipal Theater, it was an old clunker of a building, with a growling air conditioner that fought against the heat. During those warm evenings, the compressor kicked on intermittently, and when it did, everybody knew it.

For years the orchestra performed in McKay Auditorium at the University of Tampa.

Not because it got cool, but because it got loud. Barber’s Adagio for Strings could barely compete with that low rumble, especially for patrons in the back. When the AC unit shut off, a long hiss lingered, like a dying breath. The orchestra would later perform in more modern quarters when Ruth Eckerd Hall opened in 1983 and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (now the Straz Center) in 1987. It has performed in the Mahaffey Theater since 1965, though it was extensively renovated in 2005.

Playing in three halls sometimes creates logistical problems for the orchestra, and one member in particular – a violinist who doesn’t own a car. You may have seen him along the road, fiddle case in one hand and a “need a ride’’ sign in the other. After a concert one night, I spotted him a few miles from Ruth Eckerd Hall, and pulled over to give him a lift. We chatted about the concert all the way to his home in south Tampa. As it turned out, he was a neighbor.

Musicians also held chamber concerts at Falk Theatre, built in 1928 across the street from the University of Tampa. It was during a brass ensemble performance that things took an unexpected turn.

At intermission, I decided to go outside and get some air, and left through a back door. As it slammed shut, I realized there was no exterior knob, and found myself in a small alley sealed off by a high chain-link fence. I was trapped.

For 30 minutes I pounded on the door, then resigned myself to sleeping in the alley for the night – there were no cell phones back then ─ and missing my deadline for the next day’s paper. But as patrons were leaving, an usher heard my pleas and freed me from prison.

Distractions are common during concerts, particularly intimate ones. So it was one night when virtuoso classical guitarist Sharon Isbin appeared in Rodrigo’s ever-popular Concierto de Aranjuez. Ardent students of the guitar filled the front row, including someone who brought a small child and sat him directly in front of Isbin.

Halfway through the haunting adagio movement, the kid started squirming, and when he wouldn’t stop, Isbin did. She shot a glare at the man, pointed her finger at him, then at the exit. The two sheepishly got up and left, and the soloist continued as if nothing had happened.

A bigger blooper happened at the Straz Center, with music director Jahja Ling leading the orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. A few minutes into the third movement, a fire alarm went off, screaming through Morsani Hall as more than 2,000 people shuffled out to the parking lot. After the fire department gave the OK to go back inside, Ling took the podium and turned to the audience: “Rather than start from the beginning,’’ he said, “we’ll continue where we left off with the alarm.’’

The reviews were divided. I chose to capture the concert as it unfolded, warts and all. The St. Petersburg Times reviewed the next night’s performance, which the critic must have considered, well, less alarming.

I’ve never attended a Florida Orchestra concert that actually caused pain ─ except one. My ticket landed me in a seat with a broken spring in the cushion, forcing a sharp metal end to point upwards just under the fabric. When I sat down, the shard drove into my buttocks and I jumped straight up in agony. By the time I got to the restroom, blood covered the back of my pants and I hurried home to bandage the wound, smarting and a little embarrassed.

I guess that’s part of the job. For all the memories over the years, it’s only fair to suffer a casualty now and then.

Tell your TFO stories

These archive photos generously provided by the Tampa Bay Times might spur some of your own memories from TFO concerts. Share in a comment.

Header image: Irwin Hoffman was TFO’s first music director, until Jahja Ling took over in 1988. | Courtesy of Tampa Bay Times

Nothing rattled former Music Director Jahja Ling. Not fire alarms in Beethoven. Not even Hulk Hogan, Santa and Macho Man on stage at a youth concert in 1995. | Courtesy of Tampa Bay Times

The Florida Orchestra bridges the bay – for real, apparently, in this 1984 photo. | Courtesy of Tampa Bay Times

We love this adorable photo from 1974! Proof that TFO has always connected with all ages. Anybody know the timpani player or the kid? | Courtesy of Tampa Bay Times

13 replies
  1. David Lafontant
    David Lafontant says:

    This one was very recent. It occurred during the Final Fantasy Distant Worlds performance, January 28th 2018. There was a lively battle medley to kick off the concert, and I was really getting into it. Final Fantasy VII is my favorite music of all, so I was really excited when “Those Who Fight” came on as the 4th part of the medley.

    But, to my horror, the lights went off due to the storm that had been building up outside. The projector with clips timed to the music was suddenly off. The backup power came on quickly, but we were all shrouded in darkness. I was worried how this would affect the performance.

    But the orchestra played on without missing a beat. My worries were allayed fairly quickly, and the selection from my favorite soundtrack continued to be performed masterfully. And, in a stroke of divine humor the projector came back on and showed its logo “PANASONIC” at the exact time that the medley concluded with the iconic victory fanfare that is in all of the games.

    I was impressed by the resilience of the orchestra to keep pushing forward in spite of all of the distractions. It certainly warranted the thunderous applause that followed the opening piece.

    Reply
  2. Kurt Loft
    Kurt Loft says:

    Does anyone remember, from the 1980s, the group of TFO patrons who signed a petition against what they called “modern” music? They wanted the orchestra to stop playing Stravinsky, Prokofiev and all those other troublesome 20th century composers. Well, it never gained momentum, and we all enjoyed the “Rite of Spring” not long after …

    Reply
  3. Brian Hathaway
    Brian Hathaway says:

    I remember in 2012, I was singing with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay in a program of two pieces by Frederick Delius, “Appalachia” and “Sea Drift”. The concert series was part of a Delius Festival and was a big deal, because we were recording the performances for a Naxos CD. We had two performances at Mahaffey Theater that were being recorded, and over 40 microphones were arrayed across the stage. We were singing “Sea Drift” and I remember thinking “this is going fantastic” as we were really in sync with Maestro Sanderling, soloist Leon Williams, and The Florida Orchestra.
    As we got to the end of the piece, there were several measures with repeated phrases of “no more, no more” by the choir in a long dimenuendo. In the middle of the third “no more”, a rooster crowed in the audience. Maestro Sanderling finished conducting and dropped his hands in an exasperated manner. Apparently, a patron three rows behind the Maestro had a cell phone alarm set to the sound of a rooster crowing. Even though he had the cell phone turned off the alarm still sounded, surprising the patron as much as anyone else. Fortunately, the Naxos engineers worked their magic and the final product had no hint of the barnyard intruder. The Naxos CD when released hit #2 on the iTunes and Amazon Classical Charts.

    Reply
  4. Eliz Daniels
    Eliz Daniels says:

    I remember my first time hearing the orchestra. It was in the mid 1960s and at the State Theater. Bus loads of 3rd or 4th graders were brought to the theater. The orchestra played Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” and then Mayor Herman Goldner served as narrator. I loved the orchestra then and I love it still.

    Another funnier memory occurred at Ruth Eckerd Hall when Isaac Stern was the guest artist. Someone’s hearing aid kept giving off a whistling sound. Mr. Stern stopped momentarily and said ” Can someone please take the roast out of the oven?”

    Reply
  5. Katherine Clapp
    Katherine Clapp says:

    We ushered for ten years. When ‘Cats’ cane to town there was a beautiful, usually well behaved, Dalmatian service dog with his human in the audience. When the ‘Cats’ parades up and down the aisle making ‘cat’ noises, he barked! The ‘Cats’ pick it up, hissed back as if a live barking dog was part of the script!

    Reply
    • TFO Staff
      TFO Staff says:

      We had a service dog in training bark during one of our performances. The arts critic from the Tampa Bay Times was incredibly confused about that one!

      Reply
  6. Faith Dunne
    Faith Dunne says:

    In the early days of the F.G.C. Symphone Orchestra members of the Guild were asked to transport and/or entertain (i.e.pay for dinner) the soloists. Peter and I had met Henryk Szeryng at the airport and took him to his hotel. A few days later, the Orchestra management called us and asked if Peter could go to the hotel and ask Mr. Szeryng not to sunbathe in his underwear by the pool. It was totally acceptable in Poland, but not Tampa. Another time, we were asked to take Byron Janis and his wife (Mara Cooper Janis) to Bern’s. What a delight to find out that Peter and she had played tennis at the same club in Malibu and had many mutual friends in Hollywood. There are other stories, but they go so far back I can’t remember them.

    Reply
  7. Alex Bolton-Schultes
    Alex Bolton-Schultes says:

    Well, maybe I shouldn’t mention this, but there was the time three or four years ago we were joined in the second level boxes by a rat around intermission time. He/she was strongly encouraged to leave, and was last seen headed toward the stage.

    Reply
  8. Evelyn Pupello Moore
    Evelyn Pupello Moore says:

    Probably should check with a percussionist and my memory might be a little fuzzy but -here goes. I don’t remember what we were playing but it called for a gong toward the end of the piece. Unfortunately, for some strange reason , the gong was locked in the trunk of the car of the principle cellist, Roger Malitz. There was panic in the percussion section while some members and stage hands were busy trying to pry open the trunk of the car. At just the right time, the gong could be seen sliding on to the stage from behind the curtain in McKay!Played perfectly at the very last moment.
    A personal story-at one point , we had the state touring grant and a few of us carpooled to a Tallahassee concert. I had just bought a new car so it was decided we would take my car. On the ride up, a small pebble shot out from the truck in front of us. By the time we got to Tally , my windshield looked my a map of every back road of Florida. After the concert, Joe Beiro, our tympanist,gallantly offered to get the car and pick up the rest of us since it was raining very hard. Unfortunately, his wet shoe slipped off the brake pedal onto the gas pedal and the car careened into a huge light pole, crushing the trunk of my car. My brand new car was a wreck from front to back. Insurance is a good thing to have

    Reply
    • TFO Staff
      TFO Staff says:

      Wow! Thank you so much for sharing those stories. So sorry about your car, but the gong story is hilarious!

      Reply

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