Arts + Culture

SWFL’s Most Dazzling Concert Series

The international Candlelit Concert series makes its debut in Fort Myers, presenting a fresh take on classical music. The chamber concerts recreate pop and classic tunes in an intimate setting, with more than 4,000 candles illuminating the scene.

BY May 1, 2024
Candlelight concerts
Candlelight Concerts’ partnership with Gulf Coast Symphony brings a modern take on classical music—and thousands of flameless candles—to local auditoriums. The sell-out series embraces arrangements from Baroque composers, and symphonic covers of pop artists, like Taylor Swift and Adele. (Photo By Brian Tietz)

Classical melodies echo through my childhood memories of ballet class. I’ve always appreciated the genre, recalling how it sparked emotion and informed my movements. But now, with my slippers stashed as keepsakes, symphonic music isn’t regularly part of my playlists.

Increasing engagement is a crucial focus for orchestras today. How do they get the next generation tuned in? How do they draw audiences who dismiss the genre as elitist, people who hear the term ‘classical’ and picture debonair audiences, stoic musicians and grand concert halls? It takes the right hook to get new people in the door. For me and my friends, a night of classical takes on Taylor Swift’s discography was more than enough incentive.

This season, Gulf Coast Symphony partnered with international entertainment group Fever to host Candlelight Concerts—a traveling series with classical music and symphonic versions of contemporary hits. The chamber concerts have small ensembles of elite regional musicians descending on atmospheric locales to perform amid the glow of nearly 4,000 flameless candles. Each night has a theme; one performance may highlight the tear-jerking tunes of British pop sensation Adele, while another takes on the sweeping sounds of late Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. (You can catch selections from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons concerto on May 18.) Originally intended as a few shows at Gulf Coast Symphony’s Music & Arts Community Center, the concerts proved so popular the group has now hosted dozens, with more expected next season.

Walking into the 270-seat venue, I was struck by the diversity of the audience. Families with young children, older couples and several fellow 20-something Swifties poured into the small auditorium, chattering with equal excitement. Thousands of candles formed a river of light that flowed through pews and pooled around the podium. Four musicians emerged from the wings, their black suits and dresses framed by rich black curtains billowing from the center’s high ceilings. As a hush fell over the once-boisterous crowd, the members of the Miami-based quartet introduced themselves and their instruments. Then, the violinist raised his bow, and the first notes of Taylor Swift’s “Lavender Haze” echoed through the chamber. It was as if I was hearing the song for the first time.

Throughout the show, the musicians spoke to the audience, introducing pieces and sharing personal stories about what connected them to the music. Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” the violinist shared warmly, is his and his wife’s ‘song.’ The format created an infectious sense of comfort in the space—when the quartet performed “Blank Space,” the little girl seated in front of me hugged her mom tightly, whispering the lyrics into her ear as the instrumental played. Near the end of the performance, the artists welcomed the audience to stand and use their phones to record the final number—a departure from symphony etiquette that bans electronics. It was a pleasant surprise and a beautiful example of how breaking with tradition can give a classic art form new life.

Launched in 2019, the Candlelight series embraces the challenge of bringing classical music to a wider audience with contemporary setlists and smaller, more relaxed venues. “People in Southwest Florida are often looking for a night out that may not just be going to a bar,” Sarah Anstett, of Gulf Coast Symphony, says. And, the sell-out Candlelight Concerts provide a dazzling option while introducing classical music into the hearts of Southwest Floridians of all stripes. 

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