Joe Wants to be In the Music Business

The Sarasota Orchestra rehearses in the studios at The Beatrice Friedman Auditorium, but they don’t have a dedicated performance hall. CEO, Joe McKenna, says they’ve outgrown their current space, and that the organization has taken steps toward building, and relocating to, a world-class concert hall in the downtown area.  

“There really is this urgent need for space. We’ve reached a point, now, where we need our our home.” 

Their production team’s day-to-day resembles roadies on tour lugging equipment to one of the six local venues the Orchestra relies on.

“We’re like a really first-class small airline company trying to get the gate at O’hare, trying to get the gate at Dallas, the one at Logan, and so forth. You’re dependent upon certain things aligning.”

The Orchestra is active with Bayfront 2020, and The Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, but its schedule to expand may not fully coordinate with that of developing the bayfront. 

“We were a financial supporter of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, so we have a genuine interest. We want the bayfront to succeed. We think, by our departure, it probably makes it a little easier for them to develop and envision their plan going forward. Ultimately, late this spring, the board realized that we needed to look at alternatives off the bayfront, but stay in the city. The two things that really drove that were timeliness—we need to be responsive of the needs of the orchestra sooner than probably what the bayfront timeline would allow—and then also sea-level rise.”

He says another reason to relocate downtown is because donors would prefer to not have their legacies end up under water. 

“We did quite a bit of work on just understanding issues with the Bayfront, in terms of developing here, things like sea-level rise, and what does that mean if you create a significant new building can it be free from some of the risks that we’re more aware of today than we were ten, twenty years ago. Transformational donors—someone who might be thinking about leaving a leadership gift, or maybe the top-ten donors to this project—we had some level of concern about sea-level rise, and congestion. If you’re going to make an investment you want to make sure…So, our board unanimously decided to explore alternative sites away from the bayfront, but in the city.” 

Possibly the most important factor in proposing such a project is how it will affect the community. 

“The city has been very supportive. When we presented to the city, in late June, we presented the rationale of why, and we mentioned timelines, sea-level rise, and congestion, and there was a genuine understanding that this made sense. If we, in fact, imagine and succeed in creating a music center that is home to the Orchestra, it’s always been our goal that it will help the broader community, and the broader arts community.”

One artistic reason for building a new concert hall is that the musicians will have a chance to rehearse and perform in the same space. 

“For an orchestra, the room that they play in, that’s their instrument. The room that the orchestra plays in is the instrument of the orchestra. So, the fact that rehearsals are some here and some there, and we jump on over to the Van Wezel—it’s really not ideal for the creation of what it is that we do. There are certain things we’d like to do artistically that this operating paradigm doesn’t really offer. When you rehearse in one place, then you have to pick it up and move it…There are a number of things from a repertoire and artistic standpoint that you really need to rehearse from the outset where it’s going to be performed so that the artistic product can mature and develop. What I like to say is, ‘We’re in the moving business before we’re in the music business.’ So, you could say, that we’re really trying to be in the music business.”

It also seems like one more way Sarasota can offer a world-class arts experience. 

“Sarasota has a reputation for being a national and international arts destination, so as we bring some of the finer soloists from around the world here to perform and rehearse with the orchestra, allowing them to rehearse in a concert hall, a room that is acoustically designed for orchestral music and acoustic music—giving our musicians this opportunity, and the visiting soloists—that’s really what’s needed.”

He says one reason why he’s confident with the proposal is because the Organization’s process has been reliable.

“It’s really been a phenomenal process. It’s been very organic, very thoughtful, very disciplined, and I think the reason it’s been received really well in the community is because people are looking at the Orchestra as an institution that has gone about their planning in a very thoughtful, comprehensive way, with a very distinguished group of consultants, an internationally recognized team of consultants, in about six or seven different spheres. We’re very process oriented, we’re very open and transparent and objective.”

And he says reliability is what donors are looking for. 

“At the end of the day, when we ultimately invite donors and ask for their support, there’s an expectation on the part of those donors that all of this work, leading up to this, has been done with a level of detail, and care, and thoughtfulness. So, we’re just doing the work in a steady, responsible way to benefit the city, and the region, and the Orchestra itself.”

Having a new concert hall would also free up all of those dates at venues the Orchestra currently needs. 

“It allows the Van Wezel to have greater flexibility with their calendar, and how they book things. So, it really has been a win-win for everyone involved. This is really the next logical step for the organization, to have a more permanent home.”

He also thinks the Orchestra will be increasingly more important to the community.

“I think we all generally believe that as life continues to get more complicated, and noisy, fractured, and violent, the fact that we have the desire and the vision to create a place where people can come together and have a communal, common experience that is good for their spirit and their soul—we believe, internally—that there’s going to be a greater need for that with each passing decade.” 

I think he’s right.