Orchestra Composing Future Vision

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The Sarasota Orchestra has grown in size and popularity over the past decade and a half, but now needs a new hall for symphonies to keep up with demand, says executive director Joseph McKenna. The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, the largest venue for orchestra performances today, just can’t continue to be the primary stage for shows. “There is not enough room on the calendar to accommodate our programmatic growth and our artistic growth,” he says. So as the community develops a fresh vision for the Sarasota Bayfront, leaders at the orchestra hope there’s place for them to play as well.

McKenna stresses repeatedly that the orchestra has no problem with the city-run venue; the Van Wezel hosts everything from rock concerts to popular stand-up comedians to traveling stage shows. And other cultural organizations like the Sarasota Ballet book dates there as well. “The Van Wezel alone can’t accommodate the needs of the orchestra and other organizations in the community,” he says. McKenna would love to have a new 1,600- to 1,800-seat venue, one where the orchestra controlls the calendar.

But he also notes that a venue demands more than just a hall big enough to hold so many seats. Should a new venue get constructed, acoustics should be important, as should related facilities for other services like education.

Anne Folsom Smith, board chair for the Sarasota Orchestra, notes that the public school system in Florida doesn’t offer the same level of support to arts programs as once expected, and organizations like the Sarasota Orchestra today provide many of the resources to fill that gap. “When we do a children’s program in the summer, there is not an inch of our building where someone isn’t practicing, performing or doing something,” she says. “We are truly busting at the seams just accomodating kids who otherwise would not have a place to learn to play an instrument.” McKenna says the youth program has grown to about 347 students, when a couple years ago it was just 168. 

The orchestra continues to go through a feasibility and evaluation process for its needs, and the Bayfront planning process looms large in those discussions. It’s likely the city, which now leases a small facility to the orchestra, will reserve some four to six acres for the organization. But the planning of the Bayfront, which also includes discussion of the Van Wezel’s future and the use of expansive public space assembled there, will take time. The city just recently appointed a committee to explore the matter, a continuation of the work done by the independent Bayfront 20:20 organization.

McKenna says a number of elements must be considered as the orchestra plans its future: timeliness of opening a new venue, artistic integrity for the organization, leadership donor needs and the contribution to a strong business future. Something McKenna stresses is that the orchestra today is a significant business in the region with a $10-million annual budget and about 250 employees, only 72 of those musicians under contract.

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