Central Florida’s Arts Grow From Big Apple’s Seeds

By Michael McLeod
Eric Jacobsen is the 33-year-old Brooklyn wunderkind who’ll lead the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. And he isn’t the only New Yorker influencing the local cultural scene.
Eric Jacobsen is the 33-year-old Brooklyn wunderkind who’ll lead the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. And he isn’t the only New Yorker influencing the local cultural scene.

I’m in a New York state of mind. And no, that does not mean that I just got back from a sightseeing junket involving, say, the Manhattan skyline kayak tour, the Harlem Sunday-morning gospel tour, the Brooklyn famous pizza joints tour or the Sex and the City hotspots tour.

The gravitational influence of the Big Apple extends beyond the boundaries of its boroughs, particularly when it comes to the arts. NYC is the country’s cultural capital, and you can feel its influence right here in Central Florida.

These days, in fact, you can basically triangulate the arts scene by drawing an imaginary line from one influential new NYC transplant to another. Several key figures helping to shape the Winter Park and Orlando cultural landscapes are freshly imported from The City That Never Sleeps.

Start with cellist-conductor Eric Jacobsen, the engaging, energetic, 33-year-old Brooklyn wunderkind who’s the new music director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.

Landing Jacobsen here was the classical music equivalent of the NBA’s Orlando Magic drafting Shaquille O’Neal back in 1992. Soon after Jacobsen was hired last spring, one wide-eyed member of the orchestra’s search committee turned to me and said: “He’s already got the resumé of somebody in his 50s.”

Jacobsen, who’ll make his official conducting debut with the philharmonic in October, is a world-class cellist and co-founder of a small, independent orchestra, the Knights, and a progressive, widely acclaimed string ensemble, Brooklyn Rider.

He’s also closely involved with fellow cellist Yo Yo Ma and his Silk Road Foundation, a global initiative dedicated to seeking out and promoting promising new composers and musicians from all over the world.

Jacobsen has already bonded with the philharmonic’s talented corps of musicians. His ties to the national and international classical music scenes are certain to influence what they’ll be playing — and who they’ll be playing it with — for years to come.

Meanwhile, Orlando’s theatrical profile got a recent upgrade when Kenny Howard returned to town. Though he had local ties, for years Howard spent the vast majority of his time in NYC, where he enjoyed a successful career as a theatrical producer, winning a Tony for a revival of Porgy and Bess in 2012.

But Howard recently tired of tending to the business part of show business and decided to return to Orlando to direct, masterminding a string of edgy shows featuring local talent. The shows, staged at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and The Abbey, have included The Flick and Heathers: The Musical. Running through Oct. 31 is Bat Boy: The Musical, a surreal, camp-horror parody.

In the visual arts, another NYC transplant, Ena Heller, has been making her mark in Winter Park since moving here three years ago to take over the helm of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College.

Heller had been the founding director of the Museum of Biblical Art — which the New York Times called “the little museum that could” — at 61st Street and Broadway. (Despite earning popular and critical acclaim, that museum closed recently when the building in which it was housed, provided by the American Bible Society, was sold.)

In Winter Park, Heller found herself in an opposite situation:  an elegant welcome mat was being rolled out for her and the museum’s edgy and expansive Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, much of which is on display in the nearby Alfond Inn. (See the story on page 12.)

Now the Alfond has become an artistic outpost near one end of Park Avenue, with the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art providing a kind of complementary aesthetic bookend at the other.

Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Larry Ruggiero, the director of the Morse, also has NYC roots: He was assistant to William Butts Macomber Jr., a World War II vet, diplomat and CIA official who served as the first full-time president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As for the Alfond, let’s just say that if you had wanted to see the works of Deborah Kass, William Kentridge, Rosalyn Drexler or many of the other artists whose creations are on display there, you’d have had to book a flight north to do so.

It’s a measure of the growth of the arts in Central Florida that you can do your sightseeing closer to home these days.

Michael McLeod is a contributing editor for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English Department at Rollins College.

Share This Post