The bigtime

Published: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 1:33 a.m.

It all started with two women, a shared passion for performing music and no expectations.

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Evans Haile, who heads the Gainesville Chamber Orchestra for his second year, leads the GCO in its 20th anniversary season.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun


On Sunday, Got Beethoven?

  • What: A special all-Beethoven concert including the Egmont Overture, the 7th Symphony and more.

  • When: Sunday, 4 p.m.

  • Where: University Memorial Auditorium

  • Tickets: $18 general admission, $15 seniors, $10 students, $5 child (12 and under).

  • Before 1983, Gainesville was surely no mecca for classical music. There was no professional orchestra - just a university orchestra comprised of students and a few hours of airplay on local radio.

    "When I came here 33 years ago, it was a cultural desert," remembers University of Florida professor Howard Rothman, who hosted a classical music show on WRUF and WUFT and has been teaching classical music-appreciation classes in his home since 1972.

    "There was no Hippodrome. There was no Phillips Center. There was only three hours of classical music on the radio a day, tops. That was it."

    Then, in the spring of 1983, Carol Cohen and Helen Kirklin, a violinist and violist who had been performing chamber music throughout the city as a duet, decided Gainesville was ready for a chamber orchestra.

    The pair approached Dr. Raymond Chobaz to serve as conductor and then assembled an orchestra of 34 musicians from among their friends, university faculty, community members and select college and high school students.

    Six months later, the Gainesville Chamber Orchestra was born - its first concert held for free in the Reitz Union Ballroom in front of a crowd of 500.

    "At the beginning, everybody had to bring their own music stands," Cohen says. "It seems rather basic now, but we didn't even have our own chairs, so one of the first things we had to do was buy chairs.

    "We just didn't think about all of things involved in putting on a concert when we first started. We just did what we had to do to get through the next concert."

    The GCO played three concerts that first year and Cohen and Kirklin toiled - sometimes working 70 hours a week, Cohen says - designing brochures, developing mailing lists and finding places to rehearse and perform.

    Because the orchestra had little money, the musicians were paid just $40 for eight rehearsals and a performance - far less than union wages. In fact, it wasn't even minimum wage.

    "It was a labor of love because we loved music and we wanted a chance to perform," Cohen says. "It was certainly more work than either of us ever thought it would be, but the thing that kept us going was our love of music. That's how we kept it going. The musicians were willing to play for almost nothing."

    National stage

    Twenty years, two name changes and over 100 performances later, the orchestra that started as a labor of love with no expectations is readying itself to perform on a national stage.

    Last year, the GCO received a congressional nomination to perform this fall at Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The performances are set for Oct. 25-26.

    Leading the GCO into its 20th anniversary season is conductor Evans Haile, who enters his second year after replacing Chobaz, who headed the orchestra from its inception.

    Haile, who was raised in Gainesville, is also a regular guest conductor with the Boston Pops Orchestra as well as the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Am Rhein in Germany.

    Haile says the Gainesville orchestra's primary goals for the future are to solidify its role in the community and to also raise its profile outside the community.

    "We are reaching out to a wide range of audiences in Gainesville and creating a much larger profile on an artistic level of what the orchestra can do," Haile says. "The artistic identity of the GCO is providing as wide a range of music as possible to as wide a range of people as possible. That is our goal."

    As one of the few Florida organizations selected to perform at the Kennedy Center, the GCO is planning a program centered on music composed in or inspired by Florida.

    In preparation, each concert this season will include a "Music of Florida" selection.

    "When we perform at the Kennedy Center or on tours around Florida, we are acting as representatives of Gainesville in a high-profile situation," Haile says. "That has a positive reflection on our community."

    This year, at each performance of its popular series, "Sunday at Four with the GCO," the GCO will honor key contributors to its success and to the success of music in the Gainesville community. The orchestra will kick off its 20th anniversary season this Sunday with its first performance of the year, "Got Beethoven?"

    In addition to its trip to the Kennedy Center and the "Sundays at Four" series, the GCO's 20th season will feature a Pops concert in the Downtown Community Plaza, as well as its annual Children's Concert series and its second annual benefit concert for Habitat for Humanity.

    The struggles

    In its 20 years of existence, the GCO has become an integral part of Gainesville's cultural landscape, serving not only as its resident source of professional symphonic music, but as a teaching resource for high school and college music students.

    But the journey was not always a smooth one. Cohen says there were several occasions when she doubted whether the orchestra would make it through to the next season.

    "Like most arts organizations, they have had their ups and downs. But unlike a lot of them around the country, they have survived," Rothman says. "The fact that this little town has been able to maintain its own orchestra makes us very attractive to people outside the area. There are big cities that don't have that. It adds a lot to the quality of life in Gainesville."

    Rebecca Micha, president of the GCO's board of directors and a former director of Cultural Affairs for the state, has been involved with the GCO in a variety of positions for 10 years.

    She, too, can attest to orchestra's struggle, which she explains is similar to that of most any non-profit arts organization. The musicians and conductor must be paid, she explains. Rehearsal and performance space must be rented.

    Micha says the average cost of a performance is in the neighborhood of $20,000 - a hefty price tag that must be offset by ticket subscriptions, city, county and state grants, and sponsorships from local individuals and businesses.

    At times, the financial burden has been almost too much for the orchestra to bear, Micha says. When the Phillips Center became available for use, the orchestra expanded its numbers and renamed itself the Gainesville Symphony Orchestra, enabling it to play the larger, romantic symphonies more suited for the newly constructed center.

    But by the 1999 season, the orchestra was in dire straits and was forced to scale back. It played a sharply reduced season.

    "The orchestra expanded beyond the community's ability to support it," Micha recalls.

    Faced with the possibility of collapse, the orchestra regrouped the following season and reverted to its original size and name, returning to the cozier confines of University Auditorium.

    "It was a wake-up call," Micha says. "We realized we had to regroup and rethink what our role really was. We'd rather be a high-quality smaller orchestra than a low-quality large orchestra.

    "Quality is the highest priority, and the only way we can have a quality organization is to be a smaller organization supported by a loyal audience that appreciates quality music."

    The ensemble now rests at a core group of 45 members. The players are an eclectic bunch. They come from all segments of the community - there are doctors, lawyers and real-estate agents among them, as well as professors and music teachers.

    Most reside in Gainesville, but they also come from elsewhere in Florida and one from as far away as Germany.

    While their day jobs and their distances traveled vary, they are united by their passion for music and their dedication to maintaining a professional orchestra in Gainesville.

    "The reason this orchestra survived is because the players wanted to play," Micha says. "When it looked like the organization wasn't going to make it, the players offered to reduce their fees. They said, `We will do whatever we have to to keep this orchestra going.'

    "The important thing to remember is that these people work here. They pay taxes here. Their children go to school here. They are an integral part of this community."

    A recent boom

    The GCO has enjoyed a recent boom in community interest with a 52 percent increase in ticket sales over the last two years.

    Yet despite its considerable success, maintaining the orchestra remains a fragile enterprise.

    GCO executive director Lynn Noffsinger says any number of things can threaten the life and stability of an arts organization, and that it is a constant struggle to maintain financial stability, artistic excellence and vision, and at the same time remain flexible to the changing needs of the community.

    "It is still a struggle," says Cohen of maintaining the orchestra. She played her last season with the orchestra two years ago.

    "Each year we thought it would get better, but each year you have to go through the same struggle of recruiting musicians and raising money," Cohen says. "It's just a full-time job."

    But even with the constant financial struggles, the orchestra has persisted - a feat that Rothman said shouldn't be underestimated.

    "The fact that they have kept up support and managed to stay around for 20 years says a lot about the orchestra and the Gainesville community," Rothman says. "Every month I hear about orchestras folding in other cities. It gives me pride to know that Gainesville's orchestra is still around after 20 years."

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