Arts & Entertainment

The Phil You Don't Know- But Should

Backstage and in the wings at Southwest Florida's premier arts complex.

BY February 7, 2013

You can feel a little bit of tension as the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra starts working through its final rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1. It’s the first time the orchestra has performed the piece. It’s also the fi rst time the musicians have worked with guest conductor, Andrey Boreyko, who also happens to be auditioning for the open music director post.

Boreyko, dressed down in a baby blue polo shirt and jeans, works through his notes from the previous afternoon’s rehearsal, pointing out sections where he feels the orchestra’s reading of the music is a bit too rigid or too slack.

 At one point he singles out a clarinet player, Catherine Gatewood, in the back. She has but one brief moment where her instrument shines above all the others, a fluttering melody that lasts at most three seconds. Her playing, in Boreyko’s opinion, is a bit timid.

“It’s only one measure, but it’s a treasure,” he says in his thick Russian accent. “It’s your treasure. You should play it that way.”

She blushes a bit and nods.

About 10 hours later, sitting among her black dress- and tuxedo-clad colleagues in front of nearly 1,400 people, she nails that measure. Most of the audience probably doesn’t even notice it and certainly has no idea of Gatewood’s interaction with her conductor. It is just a tiny part of a wonderful concert that features Boreyko’s debut, as well as the debut of Branford Marsalis playing two incredibly difficult saxophone concertos. They stand and cheer at the end of the night for the totality of the wonderful show.

Actually, the audience doesn’t notice most of the tiny moments that happen each day to make the Philharmonic Center for the Arts run smoothly. And that’s just the way the Phil likes it. If its administrators had their way, the audience’s focus would be entirely on the art being presented.

When they do it right, it looks eff ortless. But really, it took as long as 18 months and perhaps 200 people to make that single show happen. And the Phil and the Patty & Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art aim for perfection nearly every day for 40 weeks a year.

“People sometimes ask how many people we have working here,” says Laura Clemo, the Phil’s longtime customer service manager. “They think it’s like 50 people. When I tell them it’s more than 400, they are astounded. But it takes a lot of people to do what we do.”

Guest conductor Andrey Boreyko works through a piece during a rehearsal with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra.

People such as Alex Pena.

Pena has been at the Phil since before there was a Phil, or at least before there was a building. He got his start working for the general contractor in charge of building the organization’s Pelican Bay campus in the late 1980s. By the time it was ready to open, then- CEO Myra Daniels asked him to stay on as part of the maintenance crew.

Now building superintendent, with a short, limping stride that somehow implies broad mechanical knowledge, Pena probably knows more about the campus than anyone.    He knows, for example, that the orchestra pit is raised and lowered with a less-efficient, more-difficult-to-repair worm drive rather than hydraulics, because Daniels was concerned hydraulic fluid would emit an odor during performances. He knows that the only guy who can repair the dimmer switches, which weren’t exactly state-of-the- art in 1989 when they were installed, is in New York and only has parts to fix faulty dimmers by cannibalizing others. (He hopes a complete upgrade of the system—a two-month project—will happen this summer.)

Pena is giving a reporter a tour of places most people don’t visit during their trip to the Phil. For example, there’s the upstairs air handler room, which doubles as a break room for the cleaning crew and as Pena’s personal hardware store.

“My motto is, ‘If you need one, order three. You are going to need the other two eventually’,” he says.

That helps explains the wall lined with pegs overflowing with every size belt you can think of and the walls of shelving units with door knobs, light switches and dozens of replacements for what must be 25 different types of light bulbs. (The number has decreased some as he has been able to use more standardized LED bulbs in a variety of spaces.) He passes a large space stuffed with Herman Miller chairs that were once used in the Phil’s small black box theater, Daniels Pavilion. “Mrs. Daniels didn’t want to get rid of them,” he says.

(New CEO Kathleen van Bergen tells a similar story about outfitting her office with Eames chairs and a sofa, where she finds time for the occasional 15-minute power nap to make it through her 12-to-16-hour days. She said she had found them in storage.)

Pena dotes on the campus like a proud father would his child. He shows off the new cooling equipment, which is so efficient that it, in conjunction with the LED bulbs and other measures, has allowed him to trim the Phil’s astronomical electricity bill by close to 40 percent in the past few years.

 That’s a good thing. While the fragile economy hasn’t required the Phil to trim its budget greatly, it hasn’t expanded and costs have continued to rise.

The organization has actually been running a deficit for the past few years, one of the things Mary Deissler, the new chief advancement officer, has been brought in to fix. Deissler has taken over all sides of the revenue picture in hopes of boosting both ticket sales and donations.

“Kathleen has made balancing the budget a priority,” Deissler says. “Obviously the best way to do that is growing revenue. We’d like to get donations up from $7.3 million to $8.5 million by 2016.”

That’s a lot of money to raise annually for any organization, let alone a regional arts group. Deissler notes that, unlike a university, there isn’t an ever-growing alumni association, nor is there an increasing number of satisfied patients as at a hospital.

“If this was anywhere else in the country, I don’t think it would be possible,” she says. “But in Naples, it can be done.”

 Prior to Deissler coming on and creating an advancement team, the fundraising had been handled by just one person: Myra Daniels, a woman singularly gifted at the art of soliciting donations. So Deissler has spent her first seven months building infrastructure to help create longtime donors who are as loyal to the institution as they are to any one person in it.

While van Bergen has been focused on redefining the organization’s brand and programming as the Phil races toward its 25th anniversary of the Naples campus, Deissler is working to make sure the funding is in place to secure the CEO’s vision.

Doing that means a lot of long days. Deissler is in early to get an update on ticket sales for the previous night’s event and the upcoming schedule; van Bergen arrives by 9 a.m. to get updates from her various lieutenants. Both will stay until the performances each evening. Part of Deissler’s new advancement strategy includes special reception rooms open prior to performances for donors who give $5,000 or more annually, along with special experiences. Both women will make appearances before most performances.

“The most difficult nights are the ones where you have a pre-performance dinner and a post-performance dinner,” van Bergen says. “But being there for the performances is important for me. During the day, I’m the executive. At night, I’m the ambassador. But it’s even more than that. I’m there to judge and evaluate. I get a lot of great critical response from people. What are they talking about?

The National Circus of China is one of hundreds of performers and performing groups that take the stage during the nine-month season at the Phil. From pop stars to classical icons to Broadway favorites, the Phil brings an ecclectic mix of culture to the community.

 Being there night and day is part of the job for a lot of Phil employees, actually. In fact, van Bergen and Deissler probably can’t match the schedule of Joel Poppert, who often shows up to work at 4:30 a.m. He frequently doesn’t leave until 2 a.m.

So when does he sleep?

“In the summer,” he says with a laugh that implies he’s not really joking all that much.

As the Phil’s senior production manager, Poppert is in charge of all non-orchestral shows on the main stage at Hayes Hall. He looks surprisingly chipper, perhaps well-caffeinated, for someone who was at work several hours before sunrise. And where most people would be annoyed to spend part of their morning showing a reporter around back stage as a touring company unloads the trucks and sets up for a performance of A Chorus Line, he takes it as an opportunity to brag about his co-workers.

From working out the budget for each show to negotiating with artists’ management to hiring the crew to supervising the load in, Poppert and the three other production managers on staff at the Phil have perhaps the most hands-on roles in making sure each show makes the leap from conception to reality and that everyone stays pretty much happy along the way.

 It’s sort of like playing chess, only the pieces can move on their own if they feel like it. So it’s a good thing Poppert came up through the stage ranks, where ingenuity is a requisite skill. “Stagecraft is like MacGuyver squared,” he says.

Maybe a better metaphor for Poppert is in his previous incarnation as a performer, more specifically, a professional juggler. He is in charge both of the physical space and all the Phil’s house equipment, which he lovingly refers to as gack, but also merges the interactions between his full-time crew, any union folks hired for the show and the traveling company. He has to make sure everything promised in the rider, the document the house and the performing company agree upon before the show, is in place.

And if he does his job right, no one outside the Phil knows he exists, unless they care to read the program booklet thoroughly.

“But when 1,500 people lean in on the edge of their seats and go ‘whoa,’ that’s worth it,” he says.

And there are 400-plus other employees who agree.

On a guided tour of the Patty & Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art

DOTTIE MAGEN LIKES TO START EVERY TOUR BY talking about the magnifi cent, mammoth Dale Chihuly chandelier hanging in the atrium of the Patty & Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art. Magen, who has been a docent since the Phil just had galleries in the main building and the museum was only a glint in Myra Daniels’ eye, talks about how the imposing, three-story glass sculpture Icicle gradually shifts its orientation as it goes higher.

“At the bottom, you can see that the glass is pointed down,” she says to a tour group of about a dozen. “But as we get to the third floor, you’ll notice that the glass is pointed to the sky.”

Later, after the tour, she says she starts the tour talking about the Chihuly piece not only because it dominates the lobby, but because it’s something most people don’t notice on their own. “It’s one of those instances where the work of a docent can be really meaningful,” she says.

Throughout the exploration of the museum, Magen—who looks and dresses a lot like former Vogue and The New York Times fashion writer Carrie Donovan, complete with the oversized  glasses—gives mini courses on art topics, from assemblage to maquettes. She offers deep glimpses into artistic meaning (explaining why the images of people in modern Mexican art have different proportions than their European and American counterparts). But she also freely admits to not seeing the connection with some of sculptor Fletcher Benton’s works and the letters of the alphabet said to inspire them.

By the end of the tour, she’s able to wrap up things up by tying together Benton, who occupied the first gallery, with the work of Alexander Calder, who was among the final group of artists seen.

And she points out the little details that most people would surely not pay enough attention to. In the Mexican art exhibit, there are a series of paintings that were commissioned by people to give thanks to a saint for helping them through a particularly difficult moment in their lives. Magen’s favorite shows a man falling from a ladder as he is climbing up to fix his roof. But as the story painted with the images explains, “his fall was stopped because he fell on a pig,” Magen says.

 The tour group laughs.

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