A CONVERSATION WITH THE CONDUCTOR
After 15 Years Maestro Demetrius Fuller Shares Why Sinfonia Gulf Coast Is
Setting the Standard … Still
By Zandra Wolfgram
“I am thrilled to present for you a new sound, a new season and a new symphony. It is my honor to introduce Sinfonia Gulf Coast as the only full professional orchestra ready to set the standard for exhilarating entertainment along our Emerald Coast.
Sinfonia will redefine the symphonic experience for both seasoned aficionados and those new to the classical genre. Talented musicians, amazing guest artists, and premier events will make this season feel like a breath of fresh air.”
Sinfonia Gulf Coast music & artistic director Demetrius Fuller wrote this gracious, yet bold prophecy in his first letter published in the program for the inaugural season, 2006-2007.
Fast forward, 15 years later, and maestro Fuller has delivered on his prophetic promise … and more.
And, yes, this 40-year-old entrepreneurial music maker is still “thrilled … and honored” to “set the standard for exhilarating entertainment along our Emerald Coast.”
The first year, Sinfonia launched a series called Coffee with the Conductor to introduce Fuller to the community and help get the word out about Sinfonia. We invite you to grab a coffee, settle in to hear from the maestro as he reflects and reminisces about the early days of Sinfonia Gulf Coast and how it has evolved since it formed 15 years ago.
Q: What does making music mean to you?
DF: Music is a way to share joy, emotion and feelings and a way to convey thoughts that you can’t use words for. Even before learning piano or clarinet, at 3 and 4 years- old, I was singing along to sesame street.
Q: Do you believe music is a universal truth?
DF: It sounds cliché, but it really is true. You can have a guest artist who doesn’t speak English, such as SooBeen Lee, a Young Concert Artist violinist. It didn’t matter when we were rehearsing and playing. It’s almost an existential type experience that translates through music.
Q: Why did you want to form Sinfonia Gulf Coast?
DF: It was more than just about the music to me. It was a community endeavor. We created Sinfonia, because our area did not have a professional stand-alone symphony orchestra to serve the community. A civilization is only as good as its arts and culture.
Q: How did you first start?
DF: We formed the symphony with an existing contingency of local orchestra players and community members who rallied to the cause. We launched a Founding Partner Program. I went to Mike Freeman’s office at Whitney Bank (now Hancock Whitney Bank), and said, ‘I need a line of credit.’ I didn’t have collateral, so I signed up 10 partners at $50,000 cash up to five years. It was not difficult. The Howard Group, Destin Commons, Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, St. Joe Company and Legendary Marine were among the founding partners.
Q: How does Sinfonia fit into the local arts scene?
DF: I hope locals agree we’ve made a huge impact on in the local cultural landscape. We are a destination in terms of one-stop symphony shopping, so to speak. We’re here to entertain and become a source of cultural support for the area, but also to become a part of people’s lives. Beyond music, we provide education and a social offering — altogether those three elements are what Sinfonia brings to the community.
Q: What is at the heart of Sinfonia’ mission?
DF: Music education is integral to our mission. Over the past 10 years, we’ve focused on our educational outreach, and it’s become a standard staple in Okaloosa and Walton county as a supplement to their ciriculum. Link Up impacting almost 4,000 kids in 3rd through 5th grade is remarkable. It's a symbiotic relationship. Obviously, we provide a service to the community, but more than people just buying a ticket what we do is not a stop gap, our patrons really understand what Sinfonia does and what their money goes to; they see the value in what we provide.
Q: Were the early days a struggle?
DF: I never thought of it as a struggle. It was something we just had to do. I was not alone. We still have an engaged board of at least a dozen members and there are well over 100 names on our volunteer roster. With our founding partners and board of directors, we laid out a great plan. The first three seasons were a little tough financially. We always had patrons and support. Starting during an economic downturn catapulted the urgency to create a solid, capable organization. A big reason for our success is that administratively, we organized a strong ensemble of people running things behind the scenes.
Q: Did you ever have doubts?
DF: I was always very confident. Ego and confidence are two different things. I never paid attention to what people said I just did it. I said, ‘Yes you can and watch us.’ You figure out ways to turn a no into a positive and therein lies the magic.
Q: What is your secret to success?
DF: I always joke talent factors in there somewhere, but that is not the leading force. I surround myself with amazing sponsors, artists and staff members who first believe in Sinfonia Gulf Coast, and then can follow through on the quality level Sinfonia is known for.
Q: How did you attract the A-list?
DF: I was able to travel the world and guest conduct and meet a lot of people. I went to conservatories and met many artists on the scene. I think awareness is a critical thing. I didn’t know Bernadette Peters, (Sinfonia’s first celebrity guest artist in 2006), but was aware of her. Kristin Chenoweth (performed for Sinfonia’s 10th anniversary gala) has become a friend. Surrounding yourself with that caliber of talent who respect and agree with your vision can assist.
Q: How did Bernadette Peters, the first celebrity guest artist come about?
DF: Carol Gagliardi (founding board member) was a huge fan of Bernadette Peters and her role in Into the Woods. I figured if I could get Bernadette, I could shut Carol up. I was very bold. I called her agent and that was that.
Q: What milestone moments come to mind as you celebrate 15 years?
DF: For our 5th anniversary, we launched the amazing ArtStrings violin exhibit. That was the first real ‘aha’ moment on a large scale, because of the compilation of everything it took to get to that point. When the community came together, it was a great melding of art, music and continuity of support. It took us to the next level.
Q: You’ve experimented with creating novel experiences.
DF: Yes. Mary Wilson of the Supremes was the first Seagar’s cabaret event. We were trying for a Carlyle Café vibe and it worked. That set the stage for the Seagar’s Cabaret series. I think everybody was blown away. Not everything has been incredible, but what we’ve done well is tailored our programming to our audience.
Q: What are some of your personal stand out performance moments?
DF: To this day, my favorite concert gala was Roberta Flack in 2008. She was extraordinary. She remains the most stand out gala musician. She didn’t miss a beat, literally, she was on it.
Q: Can you give us a peek behind the scenes?
DF: The first season, we were presenting a gospel choir as part of our holiday concert called Too Hot to Handle. We had to find a B-3 Hammond organ, the closest one we could find was in Tampa. We had to drive a rented U-Haul to Tampa to pick it up. The night of the show the gospel choice was AWOL! They took a wrong turn somewhere and two tires on bus exploded. They got to concert hall a minute before the show started.
Q: What does it mean to you to be celebrating 15 years?
DF: It means a lot. Most importantly, it means what we’re doing is warranted and relevant to this day. It’s a testimony to the overall picture, the orchestra, education outreach, the social events … all managed with support from our board, our staff and volunteers. It all ties together.
Q: You have weathered storms, oil spills, economic recessions and now a global pandemic. What are you doing as a leader to ensure Sinfonia not only survives, but thrives during tough times?
Overall, we continue to create a product that our audience finds relevant; and we try to be the big thinker in the arts community.
Q: What have you learned?
DF: Patience, which is not my strong point. That no doesn’t mean no forever, it means just not right now, and that good things come to those who wait.
Q: Why has Sinfonia captured the imagination and interest of the community?
DF: It’s called FunFonia. That is the biggest key. We pay our musicians well and treat them with respect. They know they are important and valued. We try to make our concerts fun for everyone. We have good energy and it makes a difference. Our concerts halls are known for cosmos not cough drops.