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Florida symphony has its roots in Sanibel, founder directs efforts to inclusiveness, music appreciation

By Staff | Dec 24, 2014

The popular Gulf Coast Symphony begins its 20th season in January with a salute to icons in world music. The Rat Pack tribute to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. plays Jan. 18 at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall. The concert is a re-creation of the Rat Pack’s legendary Sands Hotel performances. It is part of the Gulf Coast Symphony’s Symphonic Pops Series.

But it should be noted that this refined community orchestra, its stage and concert performances and broad outreach programs, has its roots in Sanibel. The Gulf Coast Symphony formed in 1995, began rehearsing at the BIG ARTS complex in January 1996, its founder and artistic director Andrew Kurtz said.

Kurtz relocated to Sanibel from Pennsylvania in the 1980s. His life’s work has been music, either playing, organizing performances or leading players.

Through sheer determination and hundred-hour weeks, Kurtz has moved the Gulf Coast Symphony from a small community orchestra with a handful of volunteer players, to a dynamic unit of 55-65 core players that reaches all segments of music, outreach and performance art in Florida. Musicians range in age from 17 to 85, with Kurtz conducting performances. He has trained and performed in Europe, the Middle East and the US.

Back home, Symphony players, staff and supporters in 2013 volunteered some 15,000 in the community, many of those hours in outreach to distressed communities and kids in challenged lifestyles in southwest Florida. And the Symphony’s outreach has gained in importance with large state cutbacks in the arts in public and magnet schools in the last decade, Kurtz said. Several islanders continue to support the Symphony with direct donations and in hosting events to raise funds for a 15-concert series that run about $50,000 a performance to stage, Kurtz said. The Symphony’s annual budget this year is about $1 million.

“I believe what (we) do, truly changes lives,” said Kurtz, who spent 15 years as an islander. “The reason we exist is to bring (people) together through symphonic music.”

The Gulf Coast Symphony has evolved into the fourth largest performing arts organization in southwest Florida. The Symphony season features its Symphonic Pops Series, three Classical Access Concerts, a Holiday Concert, and two Family Concerts, all held at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall. A free outdoor concert as part of Taste of the Cape and a free Family Concert in Cape Coral are also part of the season. The goal is to transcend traditional audiences, in small settings.

But it’s the outreach component that seems to most tickle Kurtz, who began as a violinist as a child. The Symphony sends its players in hundreds of directions, in schools to perform, to donate time and tickets to performances, to mentor and tutor, to otherwise work to present the lifestyle, participation and appreciation of professional musicians to kids who may otherwise have little exposure, he said. The Symphony has also begun to live-stream on the Web, further opening the door to appreciation, with 10,000 requests in the US to watch performances in the live-streaming debut in November, he said. There were also requests to watch from Europe, Australia and Brazil.

The Symphony, Kurtz said, “exists to make southwest Florida a better place to live, work and play. Ultimately, it’s what we do.”