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Florida Tour 2024

A Detroit Symphony Tour Scrapbook

Orchestra tours mark moments in time—they resonate with the achievement of countless hours of study, rehearsal, and communication, and encapsulate the unique sound character of the current musicians as led by Music Director Jader Bignamini. And, as the Detroit Free Press commented on the DSO’s 2024 Florida Tour, “touring helps burnish the orchestra’s wider reputation while fortifying camaraderie among the ensemble. Two airplanes, four tour buses, six concerts and packed houses later, we’ve carried some incredible memories back home. 

Our thanks to Florida Tour 2024 presenting sponsor the William Davidson Foundation

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The Stats 
A decade after the DSO's previous Florida Tour in 2014, the orchestra returned for Music Director Jader Bignamini's inaugural tour with the orchestra. With Concertmaster Robyn Bollinger tuning from the first chair and electrifying cellist Alisa Weilerstein commanding the stage, the orchestra was poised to shine for this moment in the sun. Concerts were performed in Gainesville, Miami, West Palm Beach, Sarasota, and Vero Beach with palm trees greeting us at every venue.  

Taking an orchestra on the road starts with artistic considerations but can’t be carried out without perfectly tuned logistics. 72 hours before the musicians and staff landed on the tarmac at Orlando International Airport, the DSO’s 18-wheel truck departed Orchestra Hall. The seasoned driver made his way across the country, safely delivering wardrobe trunks, instrument cases, and one cello platform—all expertly packed by the DSO Stage Crew (imagine a high stakes game of Jenga, but instead of wood blocks you are building with priceless instruments).

Travel and lodging are facilitated by our skillful friends at TravTours, who were with us on both our last Florida Tour and our 2017 Asia Tour. Three team members navigated flight and hotel bookings, organized special airline queues to get everyone through lines as quickly as possible, rode along on tour buses, and stood by at the ready to help with concerns both large and small. Taking this type of journey with the DSO leads to first name-recognition, illustrated by TravTours president Guido being greeted by handshakes and high-fives from musicians who have sincere respect for the complex nature of his work and associate him with some of the best moments of their careers. 

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The Program 
Jader welcomed the audience from each venue’s stage, pausing to explain his thoughtful selection process behind each of the works they were about to experience. Michael Abels’s DSO co-commission Emerge was chosen to open the program, a work that signifies coming together to achieve something after a long hiatus—fitting given the tour’s postponement from 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The work begins chaotically, capturing the sounds of musicians warming up, meeting again, and beginning to create together, and later emerges with synchronic triumphthe ensemble has endured, they have arrived.  

Elgar’s emotionally sweeping Cello Concerto—one of the most popular works for the instrument—featured the exquisite playing of Alisa Weilerstein, who the DSO was so fortunate to have join us on tour. And Rimsky-Korsakov's epic showpiece Scheherazade was chosen as a platform to display the full talents of the orchestra, a work that features solos from several sections. Concertmaster Robyn Bollinger’s artistry was undeniable throughout her solo moments, with the South Florida Classical Review noting that she “showed herself to be a real virtuoso, bringing sensitivity, drama and flawless technical assurance to the solos that run through the work [portraying] the sultan’s wife, Scheherazade.” 

For the close of the work, the review said, “Bignamini set a frantic pace in the last movement, giving the work extra excitement before the quiet ending in which the orchestra glowed like a jewel.” 

The tour repertoire was changed up for the second Kravis Center performance with Tchaikovsky’s final Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique,” about which Principal Trombone Ken Thompkins said, “[it] always tears your heart out and leaves the audience crying. We got to have a wide range of emotions on our concerts.” 

Playing the same program for more dates than usual allows the orchestra to refine the works to new levels of cohesion, yet playing those same works in a series of unknown venues adds unexpected elements to the mix. “Each of the new acoustics has offered an opportunity to hear things in the music that I’ve never heard before, because the orchestra itself sounds so different and resonates in such different ways,” said Principal Clarinet Ralph Skiano. “I hear sections of the orchestra in one hall that I can’t hear in another hall, and so every time we change venue, I feel like the music sounds completely different from where I’m sitting. It’s fun because you then are responding to parts of the music that you didn’t even know existed before.” 

Warm Reception 
“One of the best parts of tour is that we get to spend more time with each other and as an ensemble, have extended conversations we normally can’t have in Detroit because everyone is leading their normal lives. Our time together is really special on these occasions, bringing us together as people.”
—Ken Thompkins, Principal Trombone 

On Valentine’s Day, musicians and staff were welcomed to Florida with a reception at the home of Peter and Julie Cummings. The evening under the stars was opened with remarks of gratitude from Peter and a special offering of love from Robyn via her self-arranged solo rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” played as the evening breeze settled in and the string lights twinkled. The celebration sounded of laughter, comradery, and excitement for the tour dates yet ahead. Elegance was balanced with favors including heart shaped glasses and light up rings, reminiscent of the school-year Valentine’s parties joyfully attended as children, and so fittingly capturing the exuberant mood of the orchestra.

Michigan in Florida  
While many in the Florida audiences were new to us, several Michiganders made the journey to cheer on their hometown orchestra, the youngest of which was 8-year-old Alexander in tow with his dad, DSO Trustee Dean P. Simmer. When the opportunity to see the orchestra on tour lined up with his son’s winter break, Dean thought it would be an important experience for Alexander— who regularly attends programs with his parents—to have. Dean also “hoped the musicians might feel some joy at seeing this elementary school kid come down from Detroit because he loves what they do so much.” That hope quickly materialized when Alexander visited with several tickled musicians backstage, on a quest to win a ten-dollar bet with his mother, who wagered that every musician would say they count out loud when learning a new song (something he doesn’t enjoy doing himself when practicing piano). “At first he was a bit shy,” said Dean, “but after the first concert, he was really enthused about talking to them. On the drive to Vero Beach, he was saying ‘I’m working on my questions for Robyn.’” One of those questions was “What is it like being a Concertmaster?”  

“It’s pretty cool; it’s a lot of work but it’s really fun. I work with really nice people and really great musicians,” she answered with her characteristic smile, before asking him what’s he been working on himself. 

Dean says “the graciousness and kindness of the musicians in interacting with him was so special. That they were all so generous with their time reflects their character as people; clearly, they care about music, and the future of music and musicianship. That they’d invest time into him was so meaningful to me. Who knows, maybe one of those interactions inspires him to keep at it.” 

Two Florida Tour concerts weren’t enough for the Simmers; they also attended one of the “welcome home” concerts back in Detroit. “He was especially keen on the Khachaturian encore played on the road. In fact, he was so much of a fan of the encore idea that he wanted to go to the performance back in Detroit, and repeatedly told his Mama we had to clap loud enough to get the encore,” said Dean. 

“It was like a family reunion, especially when he got to see Robyn and Alisa again. As a parent who gets weepy about the littlest thing, he made sure to ask if I was crying.” 

Backstage Super Fans

The DSO prioritizes engaging with audiences beyond the concert hall, and this tour was no exception. Our dedicated Community and Learning team crafted events to put this mission into practice on the road.  

DSO Director Emeritus Penny Blumenstein introduced us to MorseLife Assisted Living, where four ensembles visited to perform for residents often unable to travel off campus. 236 MorseLife residents, staff, and care partners heard intimate concerts and happily chatted with musicians about the music and their instruments. After the applause faded, one quartet was approached by resident Judy Bluestein, who asked each for their autograph and exclaimed: “I’m finally doing something! My daughter will be so jealous!” 

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New World Symphony 
A commitment to nurture professional growth and preparedness for generations of classical musicians is shared by both the DSO and Miami-based New World Symphony, leading to enriching partnerships. On tour, nine musicians headed to the NWS campus to lead mock auditions for current fellows, who are completing three-year residencies.  

“Mock auditions are a teaching and learning experience,” says Clare Valenti, DSO Director of Community Engagement. “The auditions are designed to emulate the experience of a professional audition.” 

Thirty-six fellows participated in the packed afternoon, including NWS Principal Harp Fellow Abigail Kent, who said, Ive really enjoyed playing in the mock auditions with the Detroit Symphony musicians. It gives us a really great opportunity to practice out the different skills well need to do auditions and get feedback from professionals.  

The NWS to DSO pipeline is strong, with several former fellows now holding positions in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. While onsite, musicians stopped in office doorways to catch up with former mentors and pointed out their favorite vantage points for studying. Viola Caroline Coade ran into a past student, who cheekily exclaimed, one reunion hug later, Its been a year and half since Ive seen the DSO, so its really nice that you guys came to see me! 

The Show Always Goes On
Last night, last venue, 20 minutes to go time: Brandon Mason is backstage holding his double bass upside down, crew members running back and forth with laser focus. 

During the last leg of the journey his magnetic wolf-tone eliminatora tiny device that gently pinches the top table of the instrument and smoothes out resistant toneshad fallen inside the instrument. To remove the foreign object is a delicate surgery; it must be extracted from the small f-holes, where the wood is most delicate and prone to cracking—the top of Brandon’s bass is made of spruce, which is light and resonate, but fragile as a result. Careful shaking at a variety of angles yielded no results, so the crew launched into action looking for available items to create a tool that might work. Musicians had begun tuning onstage and the audience was packed, their voices an excited roar, loud even backstage. A clothes hanger with double-sided tape appeared; just in time, the eliminator was removed. The relief was palpable. 

“Everything else went as planned and we had a great final concert,” says Brandon.  

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Did you go to the beach, though? 
This is one of the first questions you get when you return from 10 days in Florida. Tracking down sand and enjoying the sun were popular activities in the few free windows available during a demanding performance schedule. Musicians did everything from making the long trek to Disney World, to alligator sightseeing.  

“I really wanted to get out on the water and do some kayak fishing, because I really like to kayak,” said Principal Clarinet Ralph Skiano. “I was going around the orchestra just trying to find if anyone would come with me, and we went out for about 5 hours one morning and caught a 70-pound sailfish out of a kayak. It was like a movie. We went out there at sunrise, and this thing was jumping out of the water, and it was as tall as I am. We pulled it right up to the kayak and took some photos, but it was so thrilling. I felt like I was in the middle of a postcard that said, ‘Come to Florida.’ This was just magic.” 

We’re giving the award for “most industrious outing” to the group of musicians who woke up at 4 a.m. to run a half marathon. Associate Concertmaster Kim Kennedy, an avid four seasons runner, rallied the group to participate, partially lured by the appeal of watching the sunrise over the beach along Fort Lauderdale’s A1A Highway. Packed into a minivan, they drove one hour each way to participate in the marathon, on the same day they played a 2 p.m. matinee: stamina is indeed a useful tool for professional musicians.  

“The effect of having the time to bond with my colleagues off the stage really helps my comfort level onstage while we’re performing,” says Ralph. “I’ve made connections with musicians I don’t sit next to onstage, and now it’s almost like I listen for them across the orchestra in a different way because we have these personal connections, and I feel like it’s a really good thing even for the music.” 

It would be remiss to not mention the buses: “We’ve had a lot of bus time together—a three-hour bus from Sarasota to Vero Beach yesterday and when we went from Orlando to Gainesville and from Gainesville to West Palm, so there’s been a lot of bus time which is great,” said Principal Flute Hannah Hammel Maser. “And then a lot of hotel lobby hangs. We’ve just been taking over hotel lobbies after concerts, and everyone brings snacks. It’s really been so great for our culture and for bonding, everyone is in such high spirits. It’s been great for us to grow closer.” 

Welcome back

Scheherazade played live in Orchestra Hall February 25

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