Symphony is sweet music
Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 10:31 p.m.
On this 2-by-4-mile subtropical island, where the Caribbean-style tunes of Jimmy Buffett are more prevalent than Beethoven, a professional symphony orchestra might seem like a fantasy dreamed up by a few classical music connoisseurs.
But each winter for the past six years, 74 noted musicians and soloists have changed all that by tuning up for the Key West Symphony Orchestra.
The symphony draws talented musicians from other orchestras, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They fly in three times a year for a week of rehearsals, fun in the sun and performances that draw accolades from residents and visitors.
Conductor Sebrina Maria Alfonso, a Key West native, returned to the island in 1997 after working and studying internationally to bring to life her dream: a world-class symphony in a town with a permanent population of less than 30,000 residents.
When she began, Alfonso was unsure whether her hometown could raise the money to support a symphony.
``When I came back to Key West, I didn't expect the overwhelming
enthusiasm of patrons who never before had their own symphony,'' Alfonso said. ``The people brought the community together to raise the necessary funds to make it happen.''
Alfonso brought impressive musical credentials home with her. After pursuing doctoral studies at the Peabody Conservatory, she led nationally renowned symphonies such as Maryland's Frederick Symphony Orchestra and the John Carroll Opera Company in Annapolis, Md. She conducted the famed Orchestra de Rus while studying in Italy, and was a guest conductor with the Prague Radio Symphony.
Logistically, the Key West Symphony operates unlike any other. Musicians fly in five days before each performance weekend from as far as San Francisco and Boston. Music in hand, they report to rehearsals, community outreach events, master classes and student concerts before giving Friday and Saturday evening performances at the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center.
However, the gig is not all work for musicians, who are paid to
perform in Key West. The warm weather, relaxed atmosphere and satisfied audiences bring the musicians back.
``The appreciation that comes from the audience is amazing, and you realize how much the community wants you,'' said New York City cellist Debbie Sepe, who has performed with the Key West Symphony since its first season.
By choosing musicians based on ability and not location, Alfonso ensures performers are leaders in their specialties. This is essential, considering the symphony only has three two-night performances per year to make an impression, whereas orchestras in major cities generally have year-round performance schedules.
The Key West Symphony's 2003-04 season began with a weekend of concerts in mid-December, featuring cellist Ani Aznavoorian. The second performance is set for Feb. 6 and 7, with piano soloist Natasha Paremski and the third, slated for April 16 and 17, is to feature violinist Elmar Oliveira.
In many larger cities, symphonies fail because of funding shortfalls. But the Key West Symphony operates on a $700,000 annual budget, with money provided by arts funding, sizable financial contributions from local supporters and in-kind donations from hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
``We are the community leader in cultural arts, and work hard to help showcase Key West as a cultural destination,'' Alfonso said.
For Sepe, Key West and its ``symphony in paradise'' hold more than just a cultural appeal.
``It's the people, the artistic experience and the location combined together that keep me coming back,'' she said.
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