A Sense of Direction

Let's say you're a pianist and a composer of modern classical music. You've got a doctorate from Harvard, and your work has been performed in Western Europe, Canada and all around the United States. Now it's time to choose a base from which to work — a city where you can exercise your craft, give recitals and exchange ideas with other serious practitioners of the musical arts. Where will you go? New York? Paris? London, Berlin, Tokyo?

How about St. Petersburg?

That's the choice made — happily, as it turned out — by Peter Blauvelt, whose string quartet is one among five works to be showcased this Friday, June 22, at the Palladium Theater. The 45-year-old composer/performer, who was born in France and raised in Germany before coming to the States, is one of the co-founders of the Tampa Bay Composers' Forum, which is sponsoring the Palladium concert. And, Blauvelt says, it's very much because of the Forum — and the Internet — that St. Petersburg turns out to be an excellent place for a serious composer to live.

But that wasn't always the case. In 1984, when Blauvelt decided to live near his parents in Florida, "it was a huge shock. ... There was basically nothing here. ... I said, "Where is everybody?'"

Over the next half-decade of teaching and giving recitals, nothing much happened to change his estimation of the area's musical culture. But then one day in 1989, he got a call from another composer, St. Petersburg Junior College music professor Vernon Taranto Jr., about a group that Taranto wanted to form: the TBCF. About seven musicians showed up at the Forum's first meeting, says Blauvelt, and what motivated them mostly was "sheer frustration that we couldn't get our music played here in the area. ... I remember that I felt very reluctant to put in any of my piano recitals anything that wasn't generally accepted by an audience that also would contain what you call "little old ladies' who love the romantic stuff. ... And that frustrated me because the bulk of my music is truly contemporary sounding, and would not have fit on these recitals."

The Forum idea — that a group of musicians and composers might meet regularly to exchange ideas and to sponsor concerts of each other's works — took off immediately, in part because there was so little competition. "We had Spectrum Ensemble, which consisted of a number of orchestra players, and USF was dabbling a little bit in contemporary music, but nothing really organized was happening," Blauvelt says.

Forum Concerts initially took place at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, at colleges in Tampa and St. Petersburg, and eventually at the Friday Morning Musicale in Tampa's Hyde Park. The 15 or so yearly performances included everything from classical to avant-jazz work, and "was all music by Forum members with an occasional masterwork. And we did it on a regular basis."

The concept blossomed, local membership grew to "40 or 50," and now, in its 12th season, the Forum can boast that it's presented the work of more than 200 composers. Further, the Forum, with over a hundred (including out-of-area) members, has become the sponsor of three very different musical series: Emit, the Festival of Living Music and New Directions.

Emit is a seven- or eight-concert festival of mostly avant-jazz works, and has appeared at St. Petersburg's Globe Cafe and Dali Museum. The Festival of Living Music usually involves four or five concerts, and centers on the Forum's annual international chamber music competition: three prize-winners are chosen, and their music, along with student and local composers' works, is put on at the Palladium and at SPJC. And New Directions, which Blauvelt runs, includes three to six concerts annually, and is "mostly chamber music, mostly smaller groups."

This weekend's String Quartet Concert belongs to that series. In all, then, the Forum puts on about 16-18 concerts a year. Performers are not always members of the group; for example, the string quartet at the June 22 performance is made up of a cellist who's a Forum member, two violinists from The Florida Orchestra, and a freelance violist.

Funding comes from the City of St. Petersburg, the Pinellas County Arts Council and the Florida Arts Council. Beyond that there are individual donors and ticket sales, thanks to which, Blauvelt says proudly, New Directions now operates in the black.

But it's not the Forum alone that's made St. Petersburg a viable home for a composer like Blauvelt. The other outlet that's made a big difference is the Net: "As most musicians have found out," he says, "the Internet is a godsend. It makes careers." He had a Web site as early as 1986, and then discovered sites that, for a fee, would list a composer's work. "Well, I started getting e-mails from East Asia, from South America, from Eastern Europe. I was stunned: People I had never heard of before, from locations that are pretty remote, started e-mailing me for my music." He estimates that one in every 10 requests results in a performance. And recently his presence in cyberspace has led to the placing of his work on compact disc.

So how has all this success made him feel about living in the Tampa Bay area? "Very good," he says. "There's a lot going on here. I mean, in 15 years, this area was totally transformed. There is so much going on artistically, not just in music, that when I have a guest ... it's a laundry list of things that can be done and can be seen. And as a pianist I feel fine because most of what I play is contemporary classical, and most of the groups I play with are Forum groups. And I have a big outlet for my piano playing, and I have all these outlets for my composing." Could St. Petersburg be a center for serious composers in the 21st Century? Why not?

It works for Peter Blauvelt.

Area composers, performers and music lovers are invited to join the Tampa Bay Composers' Forum. Call 727-391-8461. Membership costs $30 for composers, $25 musicians and associates, $20 students. Also, there's currently an open call for chamber music scores for New Directions; the deadline for submissions is July 31. Send scores and tapes or CDs (if available) with contact information and an SASE (if you want your scores returned) to Tampa Bay Composers' Forum, P.O. Box 16251, St. Petersburg, FL 33733. Include $30 membership fee. Sound samples of Peter Blauvelt's work can be found at http://members.aol.com/ blauveltp/index.htm

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