A Conversation with the Conductor

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Demetrius Fuller Gives His Take on Sinfonia Gulf Coast’s 17th Season

By Zandra Wolfgram

Sinfonia Gulf Coast has a stellar 2022-2023 season line up. From world-renowned vocalists and violinists to Broadway’s brightest stars, Beethoven musically mashed with rock bands. Curating a season that “sings” is an artform and Sinfonia Music & Artistic Director Demetrius Fuller is pitch perfect for the 17th year. With celebrity appearances, classical connections and innovative Northwest Florida debuts, this year’s offerings redefine the symphony experience and offer something for everyone. Zandra Wolfgram recently sat down with maestro Fuller to get his take on Season 17.

ZW: Jeremy Jordan is the Sinfonia Cabaret offering at Seagar’s (Sept. 15). Why did you invite this particular performer to wow us?

DF: Jeremy is really a multifaceted artist. He got his start on Broadway in the original cast of Newsies, which is a wonderful show. He is a Tony and Grammy nominated artist, but more recently, he’s done a lot of film and drama. Most recently with Kerry Washington in a play on Broadway, and in the hit TV show Supergirl. He’s sort of a “triple threat” — he can sing, act and dance. Plus, he’s just an amazing artist. He transcends all of the music genres: classical, Broadway and pop. Jeremy is a talented artist, a great musician and a nice person. I think people will really love him.

ZW: October 11 is the highly anticipated Gala Event with the incomparable Patti LaBelle. Do tell us more.

DF: Who doesn’t know Patti LaBelle? And to know her is to like her. To bring “the godmother of soul” to the stage with her 60 years in the business is a feather in our cap and an absolute thrill. She’s just as nice as she could be, and she’s simply incomparable. That’s really the only word. There is nobody like Patti LaBelle. We’re honored to be able to present her and her whole band on the Sinfonia stage. She joins our special exclusive Sinfonia sorority joining Vanessa Williams, Roberta Flack, Kristin Chenoweth, Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters.

ZW: What motivated you to create the Gala Event experience? Bernadette Peters was a showstopper for Sinfonia’s inaugural season and set at a very high bar. What prompted you stage a celebrity-studded Gala Event in a major hall like the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center?

DF: It’s a standalone event. It really has separated Sinfonia from anything else, not only in our community but along the Gulf coast, because none of the other regional orchestras bring in the caliber of artists that Sinfonia does. Sinfonia is what I call one-stop symphony shopping. It runs the gamut —we have the gala, which is a pinnacle event, the full orchestra, Pops, chamber orchestra, chamber music, education programs, non-orchestra events, like the Cabaret and Crescendo! and wine events. So, the Gala Event really is just part of the puzzle piece that is sort of the angel on the Christmas tree, so to speak.

ZW: On October 22, the full orchestra will accompany the full film showing of the 1931 horror film based on Mary Shelley’s book, The Bride of Frankenstein. This is a different experience than a typical concert.

DF: The Bride of Frankenstein has one of the most amazing orchestral scores in film history. It’s full orchestra, so we’ll have 65 to 70 musicians on stage in the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation’s Cultural Arts Village al fresco just before Halloween. It’s about 90 minutes. It will be fun.

ZW: December 9 we have a popular offering that is always changing. Holiday Pops is a tradition, but you always put a twist on it.

DF: Yes, this year, we “doowopify” our Holiday Pops with the Doo Wop Project. This is a group of guys who were originals in the Jersey Boys off Broadway. Doo Wop is just a great art form. It is as much an American musical staple as jazz, and rock and roll. These guys take a piece of music and make it their own. They will perform everybody’s favorite holiday tunes but will also take pop songs and a handful of popular tunes and “doowopify” them. They will perform a wide gamut of songs that people from all age groups are going to know. Plus, the full orchestra will play favorites like Stille Nacht and more, so it will be a great seasonal concert.

ZW: January 21 we shake off the winter blues with Get Happy and celebrate the centennial of Judy Garland’s birth.

DF: Who doesn’t love the legend, Judy Garland? This is a great production because it showcases the string section of the orchestra and basically a jazz band along with superstar vocalist Jessica Vosk. She performed Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway. If you’ve heard her sing, you know she has amazing pipes, and is just a powerhouse. You will feel as though you are seeing Judy Garland singing live with the orchestra. There’s a multimedia component that showcases vintage footage of The Judy Garland Show with tons of outtakes with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra that make an entertaining trip down memory lane. It will be a fun concert to experience because we are creating a clubby, dinner theater atmosphere with café tables. You can do that or opt for regular seating.

ZW: March 11 is the Classical Connections concert featuring violinist Geneva Lewis. Tell us about her.

DF: Classical Connections is the “meat and potatoes” classical portion of what Sinfonia does and Geneva Lewis is an extraordinary young talented violinist. She’s the winner of the 2020 Concert Artist Guild annual competition and a recipient of a 2021 Avery Fisher career grant, which is a major award and a big deal in the classical music world. She’s a remarkable artist and she’s doing Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin which is one of the staples of the violin repertoire. Her performance is one not to miss. She is going to working with the Sinfonia Youth Orchestra doing outreach in our local schools as well.

ZW: Capping the season (April 29) is Beethoven versus Coldplay. This sounds like another perfect example of how you are redefining the symphony experience. Tell us what people can expect.

DF: Beethoven is immortal. When you pair or mash Beethoven up with something on the pop scene, like Coldplay it’s unexpected. For this concert, they’re not just playing a piece by Beethoven and a piece by Coldplay side by side. This is a melding, a mashup of the internal, interwoven musical notation with vocalists and it is remarkable. It’s an incredible way to listen to and rethink how music is connected. Steve Hackman, the producer, is a brilliant musician, composer, and arranger. It’s totally unique, but it’s accessible. How many people from the age of 15 don’t know Coldplay? So, again, we hope this innovative offering brings in some new faces.

ZW: At the heart of Sinfonia’s mission is music education. Tell us why.

DF: Our mission states succinctly that we “entertain, educate, inspire the community” and we aim to do that with everything we do. Education is the centerpiece of Sinfonia. It was founded not only for its entertainment value, but for the fact that Northwest Florida needed an organization that could be the proponent for arts education in schools, specifically music education. We all know arts education is on a continual decline in all public schools. We’ve been more fortunate here in Northwest Florida, compared to some areas but in many cases our Link Up program, which is a year-long curriculum, is sometimes the only arts education these students receive.

We have a String Quartet, a resident Brass Quintet, and a Woodwind Quintet in residence — all going out to schools and the community and providing outreach and community engagement.

This year, we are reintroducing the Paint the Music project, which is a great cross-genre program that includes both visual arts and the musical arts. Kids receive a recording of what they will ultimately hear live at a Sinfonia concert, and they visually interpret what they hear on to paper. We take their artwork and display it at a concert. (Look for the Paint the Music exhibit at Get Happy in January.) The following Monday, the kids will sit in the convention center to see Beethoven Lives Upstairs, a theatrical mini musical featuring actors and singers sharing the lifetime of Beethoven with more than 30 excerpts of his music.

ZW: Congratulations, this is indeed a stellar 17th season.

Purchase tickets online at SinfoniaGulfCoast.org or call (850) 460-8800.