Six weeks into his new job as President and CEO of The Florida Orchestra, Mark Cantrell already has very clear ideas on how to move things forward.
He and music director Michael Francis hit it off splendidly, and agree that while the orchestra is doing quite well both artistically and financially, there’s room for improvement.
‘What we’re both interested in is creating what we call a 21st century orchestra,” Cantrell, 51, declares. “You’re going to see orchestras like this rise up and change the way our communities think about orchestras. We are not going to be a museum piece.”
Lots of people, he says, still think of the symphony orchestra experience as “dead white guy music for nearly dead white people” and wouldn’t think of buying a ticket for the Mahaffey Theater, Straz Center or Ruth Eckerd Hall.
“Some of the great American orchestras of the 20th century act as museums. That’s not to say that museums are stodgy, or not valuable. They’re incredibly valuable in a community, but it’s a different focus than what we need to be doing.”
And what’s that? “We need to quit expecting people to come to us on our terms. We need to be taking music, and what we do, to them on their terms. We need to demonstrate to the community the transformative power of music.” He’s not, he stresses, talking about “dumbing down” what TFO does.
Community outreach – performing music outside the concert hall – is one way to encircle and envelop. “We can go in and play concerts anywhere, but are we really having an impact on the community? Are we really changing lives? Are we really making it a better place to live by doing that? Yeah, a little bit. But there’s a whole lot more we can do.”
A newly-launched series bringing chamber music to the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, he points out, is a step in the right direction. The idea is to weave the orchestra – the 21st century orchestra – into the fiber of the community.
Growing a newer and younger audience, that old classical music bugaboo, haunts Cantrell, too. He’s fascinated by technology, and how it can augment and enhance the live music experience.
Last weekend’s performance of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, which the orchestra played in a darkened theater, accompanied by a surreal, 28-minute silent video of an artist creating a painting inspired by the piece, was a huge hit with audiences – including, Cantrell noted, more young people than usual.
“At the end of the day,” he explains, “concerts shouldn’t be about the music, they should be about the experience. Because otherwise you could just turn on your iTunes, or whatever, and listen to whatever you want. And what people saw this weekend was historic, because it’s gone.”
Already in motion for next season is a performance of the Richard Strauss tone poem Don Quixote, in collaboration with the same artist (Geff Strik) and videographer (Joey Clay).
“I would also like to see us commissioning new pieces of music to go with new pieces of some other kind of art, where it’s a multi-media experience created just for that moment,” Cantrell says.
“We’re trying to give the music world that next big bump by really integrating technology into what we’re doing. Not making it like a parlor trick, but really to have it be some way that really helps re-interpret what we do on a deeper basis.”
When Cantrell first met St. Petersburg, he was a bass trombonist with the visiting Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra.
“Twenty years ago, when I came here with the Pops, this was one of the biggest armpits I’d ever seen in my life,” he laughs. “But now … this is the definition of an urban renewal if there ever was one. And the short time span they did it in was really remarkable.”
Cantrell and his wife Carolyn recently closed on a house near downtown St. Pete. Although she and the couple’s teenaged daughter Rose are still in Madison, Wisconsin – where Mark had been CEO of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra since 2013 – they’ll be relocating here soon, most likely at the end of the current school year.
He’s got plenty to keep him busy, along with the new job. He’s a voracious reader, an avid fisherman and a custom furniture builder. His mind, he says, never slows down.
“People ask me ‘How do you do all this?’ When you don’t watch TV, and you can’t sit still, you gotta keep yourself busy. It’s amazing what you can get done.’”
The native of Scottsdale, Arizona says he has “the adventure gene.” He moved across the country to study music (on scholarship) at Boston University, and performed for many years with the Boston Pops, Boston Ballet, and Boston Lyric Opera, among others. He also was an adjunct professor of music at Boston University and University of Massachusetts.
In the 1990s, he took some time off to mush: He led sled dog teams on 300-mile wilderness races. Once the “hobby” (his description) became too expensive, he accepted a job as assistant personnel manager for the Boston Pops. “They were tired of hiring people that had no music background, they were just business people. I helped them get things turned around there.”
The “adventure gene,” however, could not be subdued. From 2006 until 2010, Cantrell – by now a trained and licensed pilot – flew shuttle planes out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport (he was still playing contract gigs, when he found the time, with opera and ballet companies).
After his employer moved his shift around one too many times, Cantrell left the piloting biz and signed on with the Boston Philharmonic as executive director, where he stayed until the Wisconsin opportunity presented itself in 2013.
All his experiences with crisis management, between dogs and deadlines, attenuating to the bigger picture and to the most minute details, prepared him for The Florida Orchestra.
“After being in the management business for more than 10 years, it occurs to me that the only reason a community needs an orchestra is: We make it a better place,” Cantrell says. “We take care of communities.
“Look at communities all over the United States, big or small, the ones that are top-notch have a vibrant arts scene. And at the heart of that arts scene is either a symphony, an opera or a ballet, or all three in some cases.
“My predecessor, Michael Pastreich, had done a marvelous job with this orchestra, bringing them back from near death to really getting them stable and solid. But there was a lot more they could have been doing. We’re now about ‘How do we grow?’”