Show People: Florida's prophet, Britain's loss

MIAMI IS, as people there will tell you, a city in waiting - principally for Fidel Castro to die. The idea is that Cuba will revert to capitalism, money will pour in from the Hispanic world and Miami will off-load its reputation as a place of vulgarity and vice to emerge as one of the great cities of the Americas. Of course, for that to happen it will need some culture, currently in limited supply. And so we come to the English conductor James Judd, who runs the Florida Philharmonic and has just consolidated his hold on Miami musical life by taking control of the Greater Miami Opera.

It has to be said that neither the Florida Philharmonic nor the Greater Miami Opera is, as yet, in the international big league. And as for Judd . . . well, British audiences would probably regard him as a lightweight; very good with youth orchestras. But that's because Britain doesn't see much of his work and the few dates he does do here - such as the one with the London Mozart Players at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon, next week - are unrepresentative of what he's up to elsewhere. 'He seems,' says Claudio Abbado, 'to have become the prophet in his own land, but he's such a fine musician. Conscientious, easy to get on with - Florida was lucky. Somebody in Britain should have snapped him up.'

In fact somebody nearly did, quite recently, when Judd missed the conductorship of the Halle Orchestra by a hair's-breadth (and a change of management). But his image problem here is a historical one that's easy to explain. In the early 1970s, while still a music student in London, Judd set up the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra and became sufficiently known to be offered the post of Lorin Maazel's assistant with the Cleveland Orchestra in America. It was a tense time for the Cleveland, which, as Judd says, 'was looking for a reincarnation of George Szell (the maestro who still ruled it from the grave). Maazel wasn't prepared to be that. But to me he was very generous, and it was an incredible experience: supervising radio broadcasts, conducting youth concerts, generally smelling things at a high level.'

He was particularly good at the youth concerts; and he returned to Britain two years later with a recommendation to Claudio Abbado, who was setting up the European Community Youth Orchestra. Judd became its associate music director (subsequently artistic director) at the same time taking up what would become his musical cross: Raymond Gubbay's one-rehearsal family concerts. He carried on doing them - rather well, but to the damage of his credibility - for seven years, which, he admits, was too long. 'Everyone from Abbado downwards told me to stop. That's nothing against Raymond - his concerts offer young musicians chances they wouldn't get anywhere else - but I did need to break out. The problem was that I didn't feel I had the confidence to leave the Gubbay nights behind.'

It was this modesty that - quite apart from his abilities as a conductor - commended him to Florida. The Philharmonic was a new orchestra, founded in 1988, and was feeling its way. It didn't want a tyrant on the podium, but someone who was flexible, patient, prepared to build an ensemble from the foundations up and be tolerant of the extra-musical responsibilities that went with the job. Namely, courting the rich. The irony of Florida was that it had such a slight cultural provision but such an awful lot of untapped private wealth. Waiting. And so it is that by far the greater part of the orchestra's income now derives from private donors, whose photographs line the pages of the Philharmonic's concert programmes, ranked according to amount. All the major givers - more than 100 of them - are members of the orchestra's board; they take some looking after, not least because they are spread along the 70- mile stretch of coastline that is the orchestra's patch. Like our own Bournemouth Symphony, the Florida Phil' is a seaside touring band. Besides Miami, it has to service West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and a place called Boca Raton, which is pronounced boweka ratown and means Rat's Mouth. 'Each one,' says Judd, 'regards us as its orchestra, answerable to its own donors and its own audience needs - which can be difficult.'

But at least the Florida Phil' knows exactly who it has to reach. In Fort Lauderdale it's the yachting community. In Miami, it's the elderly, retired hispanics and gays (a culturally powerful force). Collectively, the audiences respond with generosity. The orchestra has just acquired a new hall in West Palm Beach with acoustic design by Russell Johnson (the best in the business, responsible for Birmingham Symphony Hall). It cost dollars 55m ( pounds 37m) of which 70 per cent was given privately. The Phil' is also to get a new dollars 200m arts complex in Miami (Russell Johnson again) to replace the bizarre Gusman Centre: a 1920s fantasy with an auditorium like a stage set for The Barber of Seville, complete with night sky and stars that twinkle in performances ('effective for The Planets Suite,' says Judd). The eponymous Mr Gusman was apparently a condom magnate but, for reasons no one can explain, his centre is now run by the Miami Offstreet Parking Corporation. And it's less than satisfactory for a city with ambitions.

Whatever happens to Miami (Fidel Castro, RIP), American musical pundits are signalling Florida as a space to watch. And it's encouraging to find Judd engineering his orchestra's rise on the back of a good deal of English repertory - including a superb recent recording for Harmonia Mundi of the Walton Violin Concerto. Anyone who heard his last date at the Barbican will know that he's an excellent Elgarian as well. But will the mainstream British orchestras take note of it?

London Mozart Players / James Judd: Fairfield Halls, Croydon, 081-688 9291, 16 March.

(Photograph omitted)

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