In the wake of the chaos left by the Covid crisis, some nonprofit organizations emerged with new goals, names and plans. Polk County’s only professional orchestra is no exception.

After being known for more than 30 years as the Imperial Symphony Orchestra, it will enter the 2021-2022 season as the Lakeland Symphony Orchestra, the name it originally had when it was formed in 1965. But that’s only the start of changes in store. The orchestra will have a different home and day of the week for its major concerts, shorten its programs and hold multiple small concerts around the county.

It seems like a lot of changes all at once, but Lakeland Symphony Executive Director Amy Wiggins says some have been in the works for years and others were compelled by the ongoing pandemic.

Amy Wiggins | Handout photo

“If I were stating goals, I’d say we’re reimagining the ways the community interacts with the symphony,” she says.

The orchestra ended its 2019-2020 season early due to the pandemic, and last season orchestra leaders faced daunting choices about whether to cancel performances altogether. The orchestra did give a few concerts, some conducted in outdoor spaces with limited seating and others featuring small ensembles such as duets and quartets in controlled environments. The orchestra also live-streamed its concerts, a further innovation.

Despite the limitations, Wiggins says the orchestra ended its fiscal year in June in the black. “We have incredible donors. They really made sure the symphony was able to keep its doors open,” she says.

The new season reflects an effort to resume a full schedule, with differences reflecting caution about the potential health and financial impacts of the lingering pandemic. Board of directors member Greg Sale says it is unknown whether audiences will return but the changes should entice younger patrons.

“It will accommodate a wider range of concert-goers,” he says. “Our audience is older, and we love it when they come, but attracting a younger audience is really a goal.”

Changing the orchestra’s name back to its original form had been discussed by the board of directors for years and should have been done in 2018 when it changed from a volunteer community orchestra to a smaller professional group, Wiggins says. The orchestra adopted the “Imperial” moniker in 1987, imitating the county’s self-designation as “Imperial Polk.” The county dropped the term in 2013.

The Lakeland Symphony Orchestra gives a concert during its first season in 1965.

It was an easy decision for the board of directors, Sale says.

“Most orchestras are named after the city where they’re located. Lakeland Symphony Orchestra just makes more sense,” he says.

Changes to concert programming were dictated by fiscal conservatism and concerns about COVID, Wiggins says. Rather than resuming its previous schedule of five major orchestral concerts featuring lengthy works separated by an intermission, the orchestra will have just three major concerts of a little more than an hour with no intermission. Only one concert will feature the performance of a complete symphonic work.

  • Oct. 2: Beethoven’s Odds-on Favorites. Favorite movements from Symphonies 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9.
  • Dec. 4: Carol Symphony. Holiday concert featuring Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony.
  • March 5: Symphony No. 5. Features Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 plus Young Artist Competition winner.
The Imperial Symphony Orchestra (now the Lakeland Symphony Orchestra) performs Brahms’ Double Concerto on Valentine’s Day 2020. Featured performers were Concertmaster Nina Kim and cellist Edevaldo Mulla. | Michael Wilson | ISO

Many orchestras are scheduling shorter, no-intermission concerts as a way to reduce audience interactions around restrooms and refreshment bars during intermission, Wiggins says. Also, audiences have shown decreasing attention spans in recent years, and quarantines may have permanently changed audience behavior at live concerts.

“One of the things that has most challenged us, and entertainment in general, is that people at home have discovered new ways to entertain themselves. We may need to change the way we engage audiences,” she says.

In addition to the three major concerts, the orchestra has scheduled a smaller-scale series featuring duets or chamber music ensembles that will perform in three venues around the county – the Polk Museum of Art, the Polk History Center in the old county courthouse in Bartow and the Lake Wales Arts Center. Last season’s ensemble concerts were a hit with the musicians, Wiggins says, and will now become a permanent part of the orchestra’s planning for future seasons.

“It’s a very conservative season fiscally,” Wiggins says. “It’s a less expensive proposition to put five to 10 musicians out for a concert of around 150 people than 40 musicians for an audience of 1,000. It may not be possible to put on a $30,000 to $40,000 concert every month.”

The highlight of the season will be a concert by soprano Renee Fleming, a former Metropolitan Opera superstar. The January concert at Florida Southern College’s Branscomb Auditorium will feature Fleming accompanied by the full orchestra, led by frequent guest conductor James Caraher.

Renee Fleming

Fleming was originally scheduled to perform with the orchestra on New Year’s Eve 2020, instead of the orchestra’s annual Night at the Opera fundraiser, but the concert was a victim of the pandemic. She was able to reschedule for this season.

“We are lucky to have her coming,” says Sale, who coordinates the operas for the orchestra. “It will help boost the series.”

For many seasons, the orchestra gave its concerts at the Youkey Theatre at the RP Funding Center on Tuesday evenings, but in the upcoming season, the orchestra will give its three major concerts on Saturdays in the Polk Theatre. Wiggins says the Tuesday evening concerts posed an obstacle for many patrons.

“It was very challenging for people who work and those with children at home. We had a lot of people say they couldn’t find a babysitter on Tuesdays. (Saturday concerts) give people a chance to go to dinner or have a drink downtown afterward,” she says.

The Youkey Theatre was usually less than half full for concerts in previous seasons. The Polk Theatre, which seats 1,300, will foster a more intimate listening experience, Wiggins says.

“The Polk Theatre is a beautiful and fun space. The acoustics are great, and the musicians enjoy playing there. It’s a greater opportunity to connect with the audience,” she says.

Prices are increasing slightly for season tickets, but the orchestra is offering a new economy level option. There are separate subscription options for the ensemble concerts. Prices will remain the same for single-concert tickets, ranging from $21 to $46. Students with ID are free for all concerts.

Wiggins says last year was “scary” for musicians and staff of the orchestra, and the most important thing about the upcoming season is that it will mark a resumption of orchestral music.

“Last year was a challenge for us and orchestras everywhere. We’re really excited to be coming back to the stage.”

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