The Florida Orchestra and Music Director Stefan Sanderling. Photo by J.M. Lennon

The Bard in Florida

If, as Shakespeare said, all the world’s a stage, then for one month this winter all of St. Petersburg was a Shakespeare stage, thanks to the Florida Orchestra. The orchestra had slated a number of Shakespeare-related works for its regular concert programming this season, but in a stroke of inspiration, it collaborated with a dizzying range of local arts organizations to forge a month-long, city-wide arts festival centered around the Bard of You-Know-Where.

The play’s the thing, of course, with any playwright, but the Shakespeare Festival embraced orchestral music, film, visual art, dance, activities for kids, and yes, theater, all of it exploring Shakespeare’s ubiquitous influence on the arts. The Florida Orchestra launched things on January 3 with a midday concert of scores taking flight from the plays, from the expected—the overture and scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream—to comparative rarities including Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor Overture and Shostakovich’s incidental music for Hamlet. From there, the festival was pretty much inescapable in the community. The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg exhibited 31 of the artist’s engravings based on Shakespeare’s plays as well as his illustrations for editions of Macbeth and As You Like It. The museum also collaborated with St. Petersburg’s Sunscreen Film Festival for screenings of films that took the plays in unexpected directions, among them Scotland, PA, which sets Macbeth in 1970s suburban Pennsylvania, and director Peter Greenaway’s stunning and erotic Prospero’s Books, in which legendary Shakespearean actor John Gielgud appears as a magus ready to abjure his rough magic. Pop culture was part of the film series, too: in this context, Disney’s The Lion King was framed as based on Hamlet. Who knew?

Student vocalists from the St. Petersburg College School of Music sang works based on Shakespeare’s texts and dramatic works; family activities preceded or followed many events, and the Studio@620, a hip, multidisciplinary arts center, collaborated with the Florida Orchestra on a program that examined Shakespeare and his time through song, Baroque dance, dramatic readings, and conversation. For a finale, the Florida Orchestra partnered with St. Petersburg’s American Stage Theatre Company for concerts at home and in nearby Clearwater that combined Tchaikovsky’s scores based on Shakespeare—the Hamlet, Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet fantasy overtures—with scenes from the plays performed by actors from the American Stage company. In all, some eight arts organizations collaborated with the Florida Orchestra on the festival.

Pictured below: St. Petersburg’s Dalí Museum mounted an exhibit of Dalí’s artworks and showed films, in conjunction with the Sunscreen Film Festival, for the monthlong Shakespeare Festival initiated by the Florida Orchestra.

How do the participating arts groups view the festival? Todd Olson, artistic director of American Stage Theatre, puts it this way: “Whenever the different arts organizations can hold hands like this, when the arts community can come together, especially in this economy, it’s a positive thing.”

Angela Cassette, the Florida Orchestra’s artistic operations director, and Erik Finley, the orchestra’s audience development and community engagement manager, recently spoke with SymphonyNOW about the motivations and results of the citywide festival.

Robert Sandla: How did this project come about? Why did the Florida Orchestra decide to work with other artistic partners?

Angela Cassette: We did a Delius festival last year, which coincided with a recording the orchestra made of the works of Delius. We presented extra events in addition to the concerts themselves, and that started us thinking that it would be a great thing to do a festival with a topic that is a bit more universal. We were interested in a festival that all of the arts can participate in, and in which we can really be a leader in the arts community and bring a bunch of organizations together. Shakespeare was the topic that we decided on because there is so much great music inspired by his works. We had two programs focused on music inspired by Shakespeare, and that seemed like a really great starting point for us—it was part of our core programming—and we could build out from there.

Erik Finley: We started with a pretty narrow focus last year. Shakespeare, however, is certainly something that reaches across multiple art forms. Whenever you pose the question of why create a festival around Shakespeare, well, obviously he was an artist whose work affected every artistic medium. There was so much that we wanted to do that we couldn’t do in one month. We even talked about how we could program a whole orchestra season around the work of Shakespeare.

Cassette: Thematically, Shakespeare offers an embarrassment of riches. One of the things that we are looking at going forward with similar festivals is, how do we find topics that are similarly inclusive? We want to include a lot of different artistic partners from the community. We have not found too many things that are as easy to build a festival around as Shakespeare, which is immediately understandable to the community at large. So we’re looking at different ways to build festivals that will involve a lot of artistic partners. This was a very positive experience for us.

Pictured below: St. Petersburg’s American Stage Theatre Company provided actors to perform scenes from Shakespeare’s plays during Florida Orchestra concerts featuring musical scores based on Shakespeare’s works.

Sandla: How did you work with the other artistic partners? Was there a formal process, or were things more ad hoc? Did you already know some of them?

Finley: Half of the partners were organizations that we do have pretty strong relationships with, but we had not worked with the other half before. It was nice to have a combination of big organizations, small organizations, museums, theater companies, college students—just to have that variety was healthy. And the festival was a healthy introduction to organizations for us as well as for the new ones that didn’t know each other that well. We found a different level of engagement and excitement around participating with groups like American Stage Theatre and the Dalí Museum—we know each other well but we haven’t programmed together.

The Shakespeare Festival “helped position the orchestra as a forefront of the exciting artistic things going on in our area.”

Sandla: How long did it take to put the festival together?

Cassette: The concert programs for the orchestra had been under discussion for a season and a half or so before they occurred. We had decided to plan a festival before Eric came on board, but when he arrived we kind of said to him, “We have this idea for a festival. How about you make it happen?” [Laughs.] It came together quickly and it was really exciting to see Eric turn it from a list of ideas into something that came alive. Even when the festival started, we had groups calling to say they would love to be a part of it. It felt bad to turn people away, but it was so nice to hear from other organizations in the community that they want to be involved in whatever we might do next. That was one of the most positive things that came out of it. The worst-case scenario, which we worried about, was that the partners would say, “Oh, never going to do that again.” But instead all the partners we worked with were very excited about it, and a lot of people we could not work with this time said they want to be a part of whatever we do next time. It helped position the orchestra as a forefront of the exciting artistic things going on in our area.

“We have a responsibility as an orchestra to prove that we are both relevant and vibrant in our community.”

Sandla: What was the effect from working with other arts groups on this festival? Beyond the desire to work together again, did you attract new listeners, did the city get excited?

Finley: It did all of those things. It positioned the Florida Orchestra as the artistic leader in the community that in truth we are. We are the largest arts organization in the area, but this actually positioned us as that. We all know engagement is a popular word in orchestras these days. Rather than just community engagement on an individual basis, this represented engagement in how we engage with our brothers and sisters in the arts community. It positioned us in a place that said, “Each organization has something unique to offer, and we’re excited to provide as many access points to the orchestra as possible—and our patrons can have access points with other arts organizations, too.” Our patrons suddenly were asking us, “What else is going on at this concert that I have already subscribed to?” The festival certainly did have a big effect in the press for us: every event for the entire month was an “editor’s pick” in the paper. Everybody who participated this year wants to participate next year, and plenty of folks want to get involved. Plus, it attracted attention on a larger scale—most of what we did was in St. Petersburg, but we started getting wider interest from arts organizations north of us in Clearwater and Tampa. It was positive on many levels, including the way other organizations look to us to take the lead in programming.

Cassette: We have a responsibility as an orchestra to prove that we are both relevant and vibrant in our community. This was one of those things that go on the list of projects that show we are relevant to the lives in our community, that we’re a vibrant organization, and that the arts are relevant. There are a lot of different projects that we are working on. In addition to great performances in the concert hall, it really is helping us change the picture of what we can do in our community, what we mean to our community. It’s a good direction to be going, and it really resonates in our community.

Sandla: Do you have any notion of the subject of a coming festival, or is that premature?

Cassette: We have not settled on a specific topic for next year, but we have been talking about building something around the idea of journeys. We’ve had this cultural exchange going on with Cuba, so we have started looking at travel and how composers and artists were affected by living in other countries, or how so many composers had to leave Europe and come to America around the time of the Second World War. We have looked at those ideas and how we might be able to build this and how our our patrons and people in the community could tell us about their personal and artistic journeys. That’s where we are headed, but we have not landed on anything tangible right now.

Finley: Four or five local arts organizations already have some programming and could further expand ideas based on where we are with the topic now. The challenge is to broaden it to include the organizations that expressed interest last time, but keep it specific enough so it has a true identity and a theme that resonates well.

Below, view a short video about the Shakespeare Festival, shot inside the Dalí Museum.


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