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Remember when fire alarms went off in Beethoven’s 9th?

A look back at 3 decades of covering the orchestra. Tell us your TFO stories, too.

You know you’re getting old when you find in a desk drawer a ticket stub to the opening of The Florida Orchestra’s 1981-82 season.

I remember the night like it was 37 years ago. It was called the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony back then, and this was my very first review for the Tampa Tribune, where I had just been hired as its classical music critic and feature writer. I was a geek with an ill-fitting jacket, loud tie, and shoes a size too small ─ but fueled with a passion for the great composers.

It was a formidable assignment. The concert started at 8:30 p.m. at the old McKay Auditorium at the University of Tampa and didn’t get out until nearly 11 p.m., leaving me gasping to make deadline. Even more formidable was the guy at the podium – Music Director Irwin Hoffman – a daunting figure with mutton chops and little tolerance for late-comers, talkers, and program rustlers.

All went well, from the national anthem to a program of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3, Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 and Dvorak’s Carnival Overture. It would be the first of hundreds of TFO concerts for me, and the beginning of a treasured musical journey stretching over three decades.

Today, the 50th anniversary season offers a chance to reflect on those years, and some of the musical amusements along the way.

McKay Auditorium offered its share of them. Originally built in 1925 as Tampa’s Municipal Theater, it was an old clunker of a building, with a growling air conditioner that fought against the heat. During those warm evenings, the compressor kicked on intermittently, and when it did, everybody knew it.

Not because it got cool, but because it got loud. Barber’s Adagio for Strings could barely compete with that low rumble, especially for patrons in the back. When the AC unit shut off, a long hiss lingered, like a dying breath. The orchestra would later perform in more modern quarters when Ruth Eckerd Hall opened in 1983 and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (now the Straz Center) in 1987. It has performed in the Mahaffey Theater since 1965, though it was extensively renovated in 2005.

Playing in three halls sometimes creates logistical problems for the orchestra, and one member in particular – a violinist who doesn’t own a car. You may have seen him along the road, fiddle case in one hand and a “need a ride’’ sign in the other. After a concert one night, I spotted him a few miles from Ruth Eckerd Hall, and pulled over to give him a lift. We chatted about the concert all the way to his home in south Tampa. As it turned out, he was a neighbor.

Musicians also held chamber concerts at Falk Theatre, built in 1928 across the street from the University of Tampa. It was during a brass ensemble performance that things took an unexpected turn.

At intermission, I decided to go outside and get some air, and left through a back door. As it slammed shut, I realized there was no exterior knob, and found myself in a small alley sealed off by a high chain-link fence. I was trapped.

For 30 minutes I pounded on the door, then resigned myself to sleeping in the alley for the night – there were no cell phones back then ─ and missing my deadline for the next day’s paper. But as patrons were leaving, an usher heard my pleas and freed me from prison.

Distractions are common during concerts, particularly intimate ones. So it was one night when virtuoso classical guitarist Sharon Isbin appeared in Rodrigo’s ever-popular Concierto de Aranjuez. Ardent students of the guitar filled the front row, including someone who brought a small child and sat him directly in front of Isbin.

Halfway through the haunting adagio movement, the kid started squirming, and when he wouldn’t stop, Isbin did. She shot a glare at the man, pointed her finger at him, then at the exit. The two sheepishly got up and left, and the soloist continued as if nothing had happened.

A bigger blooper happened at the Straz Center, with music director Jahja Ling leading the orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. A few minutes into the third movement, a fire alarm went off, screaming through Morsani Hall as more than 2,000 people shuffled out to the parking lot. After the fire department gave the OK to go back inside, Ling took the podium and turned to the audience: “Rather than start from the beginning,’’ he said, “we’ll continue where we left off with the alarm.’’

The reviews were divided. I chose to capture the concert as it unfolded, warts and all. The St. Petersburg Times reviewed the next night’s performance, which the critic must have considered, well, less alarming.

I’ve never attended a Florida Orchestra concert that actually caused pain ─ except one. My ticket landed me in a seat with a broken spring in the cushion, forcing a sharp metal end to point upwards just under the fabric. When I sat down, the shard drove into my buttocks and I jumped straight up in agony. By the time I got to the restroom, blood covered the back of my pants and I hurried home to bandage the wound, smarting and a little embarrassed.

I guess that’s part of the job. For all the memories over the years, it’s only fair to suffer a casualty now and then.

Tell your TFO stories

These archive photos generously provided by the Tampa Bay Times might spur some of your own memories from TFO concerts. Share in a comment.

Header image: Irwin Hoffman was TFO’s first music director, until Jahja Ling took over in 1988. | Courtesy of Tampa Bay Times

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