The Florida Orchestra’s history is steeped in orchestral tradition from both sides of Tampa Bay. In the 1930s, Tampa already had a strong orchestra scene with a WPA orchestra, and by the mid 1940s, the Tampa Symphony Orchestra was born, although it would be renamed the Tampa Philharmonic in 1959. Similarly, across the bay in St. Petersburg, community and city orchestras had already formed by the mid-to-late 1940s, and in 1950, members of the Carreno Music Club formed the St. Petersburg Symphony.
Talks of the two orchestras merging began to surface in 1964. Instrumental in these talks were the conductors of the two orchestras, Alfredo Antonini of the Tampa Philharmonic and Thomas Briccetti of the St. Petersburg Symphony. An official intent of the merger was made on November 23, 1966, and on that day, representatives from both the Tampa Philharmonic and the St. Petersburg Symphony traveled by boat to the center of Tampa Bay, where they married the two institutions in a symbolic union and became the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony. The St. Petersburg Times, now known as the Tampa Bay Times, noted in an article on November 24, 1966, “The mood was one of pride for the entire Tampa Bay area, not one city over another.”
The merger became official two years later, and the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony opened its first season on November 14, 1968, under the baton of 43-year-old Music Director Irwin Hoffman, who had previously guest conducted the Tampa Philharmonic. The program included Berlioz’ Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 47. That first season, the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony presented five concerts from November through April, performing each concert three times.
The orchestra continued to perform as the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony until its name was changed to The Florida Orchestra in 1984.
- Irwin Hoffman (1968–1987)
- Jahja Ling (1988–2002)
- Stefan Sanderling (2003–2012)
- Michael Francis (2015-)
The first music director of the orchestra was Irwin Hoffman, from 1968 to 1987. During the 1988-89 season, Jahja Ling made his debut as music director to tremendous critical acclaim. Ling brought the orchestra into the international spotlight as he led them in the performance of the U.S. national anthem with Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV before a worldwide audience of 750 million. The Florida Orchestra made musical history as the first symphony orchestra to ever be invited to perform at a Super Bowl. The 2001-02 season marked Jahja Ling’s final season as music director of The Florida Orchestra, and in May 2002, Stefan Sanderling was appointed music director. In the summer of 2012, Sanderling’s departure from The Florida Orchestra was announced. His contract had been intended to run through the 2013–2014 season, at which point he was scheduled to conclude his tenure. There were reports of conflict between Sanderling and the orchestra management as factors in his departure. However, in June 2012, the orchestra announced the early conclusion of Sanderling’s Florida Orchestra tenure after the 2011–2012 season, at which time he took the titles of conductor emeritus and artistic adviser to the orchestra.
In past years, the orchestra has had as its principal pops conductor Skitch Henderson (1987–2000) and Richard Kaufman (2004–2009). In June 2012, the orchestra named Jeff Tyzik its new principal pops conductor, effective with the 2012–2013 season, with an initial contract of three years. Also in June 2012, the orchestra named Stuart Malina as its principal guest conductor, effective with the 2012–2013 season.
In June 2014, the orchestra announced the appointment of Michael Francis as its new music director starting with the 2015-2016 season, serving as music director designate for the 2014-2015 season. Appointed as part of an initial three-year contract, his duties include being the primary conductor and providing the artistic leadership for concert programming and related artistic decisions. Although his primary role is with the Tampa Bay Times Masterworks series, he will also be conducting one concert each season for the Raymond James Pops and the morning Coffee Concert series.