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Maestro Peter Rubardt Celebrates 20 Years With Pensacola Symphony Orchestra

The Pensacola Symphony Orchestra will kick off the 2016-17 season with their Opening Night performance on this Saturday, October 1 at the Saenger Theatre.

This will be the orchestra’s 20th season under the direction of Music Director Peter Rubardt.

Prior to his appointment in Pensacola,Rubardt served four seasons as Associate Conductor of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra and three seasons as Resident Conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

When he got the job and arrived in Pensacola in 1996, he says he and his wife Hedi (Dr. Hedi Salanki-Rubardt), Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of West Florida and Yamaha Artist, had no idea that they would still be here 20 years later.

“We were thrilled to be at the beach, thrilled for the position that we had, and (yet) our life just seemed full of uncertainty,” Rubardt said. “Pensacola seemed to be a very different place then than it is now. And, if I had known where the Pensacola Symphony was going to go, I would have just been ecstatic.”

Rubardt says when he reflects on his twenty years, he thinks about his own evolution as a music director and his understanding of the role that an orchestra plays in a community.

Credit Pensacola Symphony Orchestra
Pensacola Symphony Orchestra
Maestro Peter Rubardt celebrates 20 years with the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra.

Also, he’s proud of the increased professionalism of the entire organization. “So, in terms of the quality of the performances that we do, the way in which we interact with the community, the facilities we use, the quality of the players that come, the guest artists; everything about it has just steadily evolved to become a powerhouse regional orchestra, which is just a great place to be,” said Rubardt.

One of Rubardt’s first interviews at WUWF came 20 years ago, when this reporter (Sandra Averhart)  asked him about one of the issues of the day, “the graying of classical music.”

“The symphony audience has always been a pretty gray audience,” said Rubardt, referencing his likely response in 1996. “And, it’s in fact not any grayer now than it was then.”

Rubardt says there are a number of reasons why the people who attend classical music concerts are generally older. First, he notes, it’s an acquired taste. “It’s something that at a certain time in peoples’ lives they have the time, the attention span, the financial resources; they just reach a place where that becomes an attractive art form to get involved with.”

What has changed and is a cause for concern is what Rubardt refers to as a ‘break in the pipeline,’ which feeds their “gray” audience. He points to a decline in music education around the country, and the prevalence of digital media. And, he says they can no longer count on parents to expose their children to classical music, since the parents themselves may not have been exposed.

Under Rubardt’s leadership as music director, the Pensacola Symphony has been working to address this issue with a number of initiatives, including their recently launched “Beyond the Stage.”

“We look at ways in which the Pensacola Symphony can nurture the appreciation of classical music throughout the community and not on the Saenger stage on Saturday night,” said Rubardt. “That’s not what this program is about.”

The PSO has always done music education in the community, bringing fifth-graders into the hall, hosting family concerts, and sending ensembles into the schools.

As part of “Beyond the Stage,” they’ve established partnerships with various schools and send out PSO musicians on a more regular basis, as often as 8 times during a single semester, in order to build more meaningful relationships.

“Those are the kinds of things where we have gotten younger students really very definitely engaged in a deeper way that will in turn lead them to become the audience in the future, and it’s okay if they’re gray.”

Credit Peter Rubardt
Pensacola Symphony performing at Pensacola Beach.

The PSO also has taken the show on the road, with performances in local churches, at festivals, on Pensacola Beach and in places like Seaside. Also, smaller ensembles have gone out into the community to perform at places such as Nemours Children’s Hospital and retirement communities.

One of the most significant happenings during Rubardt’s tenure with the PSO, was the most recent renovation of the Historic Pensacola Saenger Theatre.

“That is really the seminal event of the last 20 years,” said Rubardt, recalling his first PSO board meeting at which he acknowledged the importance of the historic building, but also pointed out various issues with the old building that made it a difficult place to work.

Rubardt credits builder Bill Greenhut with guiding renovation of the historic threatre to its grand reopening in 2009.

“So, from that time on, we had our acoustics. We had our storage. We had comfortable seats for the audience,” recounted Rubardt. “We started drawing a completely different kind of player and guest artist, just like the theatre itself has drawn, you know, a much higher level of entertainment across the board. It’s really been the anchor of downtown Pensacola and certainly for the symphony.”

Ironically, Rubardt says one the most memorable concerts during his 20 years in Pensacola, did not take place at the Saenger. It was the symphony’s first performance in the fall of 2004, just two weeks Hurricane Ivan.

“The Saenger was closed, and it was obviously such a tumultuous time for the community,” said Rubardt, adding that they still did not want to cancel their upcoming opening night concert. So the scramble to come up with a Plan B began.

After four days of brainstorming, he says they moved the program to Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, changed the program to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and he says Kyle Marrero, then artistic director of the Pensacola Opera, somehow pulled together a chorus, and they found some soloists to perform.

Credit Pensacola Symphony Orchestra
Pensacola Symphony Orchestra
PSO Music Director Peter Rubardt conducting a performance at the Saenger Theatre.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that kind of connection between the message of music and the moment that that message was called for; it was just a tremendous gift to be part of that and something I’ll never forget.”

Opening Night is this Saturday, October 1, 7:30 p.m. at the Pensacola Saenger Theatre. The program begins with selections from Antonin Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. Young artist, Bella Hristova, will conclude the first half with the enchanting Violin Concerto of Jean Sibelius. An exquisite pair of pieces by Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy will close out the program.

Looking ahead at the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-17 season, “Kobrin Plays Brahms” will be performed Nov. 5. The annual New Year’s Eve concert is Dec. 31. The PSO’s annual Beethoven & Blue Jeans concert is Jan. 14, 2017.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.