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The Florida Orchestra’s Pastreich leaves his legacy through community

Megan Holmes

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In July, Michael Pasteich announced his plan to step down as the executive director of The Florida Orchestra after 11 years of leadership that sparked immense growth in the organization Pastreich met in dire straits. 

When Michael Pastreich took the helm at the Florida Orchestra in 2007, the organization was $3 million in debt. That may not seem like a staggering figure to some – symphonies across the country have been declining slowly as attendance has continued to lag. People just don’t seem to be as interested in seeing an orchestra as they once were…

According to Pastreich, the $3 million debt was more than a small problem – in fact, having to borrow any money at all was the signal of a serious predicament for the organization. “Orchestras are cash rich,” said Pastreich, “By the time the season starts we have all of our subscription money in the bank, we have most of our sponsorship money in the bank, we have all this money for stuff that hasn’t happened yet. So if an orchestra gets to a point where it actually has to borrow a penny, they’re already deeply in the hole.”

And deeply in the hole they were. At the start of his tenure, mid-season, Pastreich eliminated $1 million of the organization’s debt, making difficult decisions at every turn. What he didn’t expect was the reception that the board would give him at the proposal of a plan to tackle the problems facing the organization – “I think I’m reasonably good at managing a board room,” said Pastreich. “This meeting was bedlam.” Though his plan passed by a narrow margin, over the next six months all but three board members resigned.

But the plan also attracted the next three board chairs to the organization. “What I had not counted on was what a filter that plan was gonna be for the organization,” Pastreich commented.

Since that time, the Florida Orchestra has seen major growth, much of it attributable to Pastreich’s plan and the direction of the impressive board that he assembled. In 2011, he reduced ticket prices to a range between $15 to $45.  By lowering ticket prices, Pastreich has seen the orchestra’s audience change – attracting a younger, less predominantly white assembly. Attendance increased dramatically, peaking at a 49 percent increase in the orchestra’s 50th season.

But success was neither all about the music, nor all about the revenue for Pastreich. “My drive is to figure out not how do we make the greatest music possible, but to ask the question, ‘To what end are we making great music?’ said Pastreich. “Music in itself can’t be the goal for me.”

Those ends have included reaching wider audiences through multilateral efforts. The orchestra has taken on eclectic programming, curated pop-up performances across Tampa Bay, and made an effort to reach into communities.

One such end is the partnership the Florida Orchestra has made with the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. Located next door to Jordan Park, just off of the Deuces Live Historic Main Street, the Carter G. Woodson serves one of the poorest neighborhoods in St. Petersburg.

The chamber series, underwritten by one of the Florida Orchestra’s board members, utilizes a pay-what-you-can model and all proceeds go toward the Woodson Museum. The series not only brings music to a traditionally under-served neighborhood, but also encourages the traditional audience of the orchestra to venture into places they may not otherwise go.

“So it’s an example of yes, we are making great music,” said Pastreich. “People who go to the concerts, consistently the feedback is that it’s a phenomenal experience. For me, we’re harnessing music to impact the neighborhood in a way that nobody but an orchestra possibly can.”

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