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Update from the TFO president: With courage and creativity, we’re boldly moving forward

Note: This letter from President & CEO Mark Cantrell looks at how TFO’s progress this past year is driving our momentum. As we get ready to celebrate our 55th season, we share his letter with our extended community.

We have come a long way together in the past year. The season was not what we expected — certainly not yet back to “normal”— but in true Florida Orchestra fashion, we have creatively sought opportunities in the face of challenges. We didn’t just “get by” or “make do.” We boldly moved forward. We came together as a team to inspire and unite our community through the most beautiful music even as we made significant progress on strategic goals: increasing our reach and building a stable foundation for growth. As we get ready to celebrate our 55th season, a look back at what we’ve accomplished says even more about where we are going.

We’re starting out with a big success that shows stability. I am very pleased to announce that the musicians and Board of Directors have ratified a new three-year contract well ahead of schedule. The collective bargaining agreement steadily continues increases in musician pay and gradually lengthens the concert season – adding more music, more revenue potential and more stability for musicians. This is a result of a team approach based on mutual trust and respect with our amazing musicians, who have a deep commitment to the future and sustainability of TFO. It’s the same approach that kept us successfully performing live through Covid when almost no other orchestras did, and it will continue to carry us confidently into this season and beyond. As part of our commitment to long-term growth and stability, I am pleased and humbled that the board has extended my contract for six years. We have a consistent, steady team and leadership who are dedicated to success.  Click here to read the news release on the contract.

All that we do all year long starts with the greatest music performed at its very best under the leadership of Michael Francis. All the times we had to rise to the challenges of Covid seem a lifetime ago now. What stays with us are the countless inspirational moments, from the intensity of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 to the intimacy of the maestro playing bass with Milos. I personally have a deep love for Mahler. Often misunderstood, Mahler had a true insight into what makes us human and a unique power to reflect our own joys and sorrows. With Maestro Francis’ brilliant Inside the Music, he helped “unlock” the secrets to Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, bringing depth to performances by our fantastic musicians that were nothing short of spectacular. This ability to give audiences their own personal connection to the music is what separates TFO from so many other orchestras. I highly encourage you to attend the four Inside the Music concerts this season, especially for Mahler’s heavenly Symphony No. 4 in January. If you don’t already love Mahler, you will.

These one-of-a-kind experiences and extraordinary performances inspire patrons and donors to engage more deeply. This past season we made real progress on important strategic goals: growing sponsorships and corporate partnerships and attracting new donors. One of the top highlights was the spectacular sold-out gala benefit concert with Josh Groban. Presented by PNC Bank, with Maestro Sponsor Mahaffey Family-Mahaffey Apartment Company, it was an unforgettable night.

In the fall, we had the first of two highly successful matching gift challenges. Dr. Ralph and Kathleen Rydell’s generosity inspired more than 200 gifts, many from first-time donors who learned what it takes for a world-class orchestra to perform and serve our community all year long. It contributed to our strong fundraising momentum in the first half of the season, when we exceeded many of our monthly goals. Then came the spring. We are all well aware of the global and economic factors that have posed unique challenges. When we needed it most, TFO Board Director Robert Schmidt came forward with our second matching gift challenge, which spurred critical support from hundreds of donors that helped carry TFO through June and the end of our fiscal year.

As we launch our new season, we continue to work hard to attract a growing donor base and strengthen sponsorships and corporate partnerships that share our values. Last season’s sponsor of Michael Francis’ Inside the Music series, the Hough Family Foundation, is now the exciting title sponsor of our premier Masterworks series. The Cassaly Foundation has generously embraced Inside the Music as the series’ new sponsor. We are thrilled and grateful to have continued vital support from Raymond James for the Pops series, Medi-Weightloss for the Morning Coffee concerts, and Smith & Associates Real Estate as sponsor for the Pre-Concert Conversations for Masterworks for a second year. And the McNichols Co. will celebrate its fourth year of a multi-year partnership agreement. TFO is forging new collaborations with other corporate and non-profit partners, as we work to deepen our reach into new audiences, attract new supporters and help them discover all the many ways they can engage with their Florida Orchestra.

A big part of our story last season was REACH – in all areas – but especially in engaging new audiences, people who are not already familiar with TFO. We’ve made progress. Simply look and listen in the lobbies, and it’s undeniable that we have a wider range of patrons – especially in age and ethnicity – including more native Spanish-speakers. Particularly for the first half of the season, we continued to face Covid-related challenges in subscriber sales and health policies, but our single-ticket sales were very strong, a leading indicator of patron growth.

One way to quantify reach is traffic to our website: Last season, we had a record number of views on That’s important because our No. 1 goal is to drive people to our website for tickets, messaging and donations. That is our best, most direct connection to patrons. More ways our reach was up: open rate for emails; social media followers, and click through rates on digital ads.

How did we do it? It started with the culmination of the Making Waves in Tampa Bay campaign, a result of brainstorming with TFO Board Director Carol Balkcom and her team. Stunning photos connecting Michael Francis specifically to Tampa Bay were used in all print materials, website, WEDU spots, billboards and digital ads, which are the biggest driver to our website. We published more social media posts than ever last season, which also drove people to our website via the blog, photos and videos, program notes, ticket buys, etc. It was our first year of greater reach through “influencers,” who come to concerts and then post about their experience on their own social media accounts, which have thousands of followers – many of those new to us.

Last season we created digital ads for every Masterworks and Pops concert, and for the first time, many were in Spanish. We increased our Telemundo TV ads in Spanish. We continued ads in Watermark, an LGBTQ-focused news source, which published a feature on TFO guest artist and pianist Sara Davis Buechner. We are targeting a broad market in new ways to make sure everyone feels welcome in the concert hall, especially as we continue to make progress in rebuilding our audience.

Inspire. Unite. Educate. For the first time, last school year we took our Strings for Kids program into two Title 1 schools in Pinellas County: Maximo Elementary and Lakewood Elementary (also a trauma response school), where about 90% of the student population identifies as African-American or Hispanic and are eligible for free lunch. We put violins in the hands of kids – for free – and changed their lives. At the start of the school year, physical fights, poor behavior and rude language were common, but then we saw a dramatic shift in classroom culture. By using music education to remove barriers and support students, we assessed clear improvements in self-discipline, accountability, respect and mutual support. School attendance improved. Kids were motivated to study harder across subjects. You’ll hear more about this important program this season, as we add more violin classes at the schools and integrate a homework mentorship program.

Also last season, we performed Youth Concerts virtually to meet Covid protocols – they should return to in-person in the fall – and hired fantastic violinist Jina Lee as a new teaching artist, continuing to put professional TFO musicians directly into Pinellas classrooms since 2017.  Our education and community team continued its good work over the summer. Strings for Kids once again partnered with the YMCA in St. Petersburg and Prodigy Cultural Arts in Hillsborough for summer camps, in addition to collaborations with the Patel Conservatory and USF St. Pete/Police Athletic League.

What’s next? Through bold thinking and hard work onstage and in all departments, the forward momentum of this organization is going strong into the new fiscal year. While we still have challenges ahead, all that we’ve achieved this past season, all the work we’ve done over the past several years, is building a solid foundation that will continue to serve our community well.

We are all part of TFO for a reason. We are passionate about the orchestra and its place in our community. It is our responsibility to be champions of this great cultural asset for Tampa Bay. The future of The Florida Orchestra depends on us.

As we come together to launch our 55th season with the legendary Itzhak Perlman on Oct. 1, we have much to celebrate. I am so proud to be part of this awesome TFO team and the remarkable season ahead. Thank you to each and every one of you for all you do for this great Florida Orchestra.

Mark Cantrell
President & CEO
The Florida Orchestra

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