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Front Page » Opinion » A Onewoman Show Builds Legacy Exits Stage She Created

A Onewoman Show Builds Legacy Exits Stage She Created

Written by on June 14, 2007

By Michael Lewis
Phone (305) 808-7446 and listen to the recording: "Thank you for calling Judy Drucker’s Concert Association of Florida."

Then view the Web site, with tributes galore to Ms. Drucker. The history page speaks of "indefatigable president and Founding Artistic Director, Judy Drucker, who has been recognized by countless organizations and governing bodies, including the State of Florida, for her pioneering and continuing efforts in advancing the arts in South Florida while championing its cultural stature throughout the world." Overblown though it sounds, it’s absolutely correct.

Another page lists artists Ms. Drucker has introduced here, a who’s who in music and dance.

The page of awards and honors for Judith Nelson Drucker lists 51 — high points of a truly remarkable career.

On most pages, you’ll see a scrolling photo lineup of greats — Leonard Bernstein, Winton Marsalis, Luciano Pavarotti, Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman and more. Judy Drucker brought them all here. And she appears in every photo, just as she has appeared on stage at virtually every concert.

But when the Bergen Philharmonic opens the association’s 40th season Nov. 12 at the Carnival Center, Judy Drucker won’t be in charge. Though her brand permeates the association, Al Milano, backstage CEO whose name can’t even be found on the Web site, will be at the helm — though not on stage.

Instead of Ms. Drucker, who’s always been part of the show, Mr. Milano says, he’ll be "fairly quiet, behind the scenes." He won’t even sit out front in Row E. "This is not about me. This is about the artists," he says, "very different."

That very difference led the association’s board 10 days ago, in hopes Mr. Milano could right the ship before it sank, to painfully vote Ms. Drucker out of control of an entity she founded.

A month earlier he’d quit, saying he couldn’t work with Ms. Drucker — and even her friends and supporters say working with her is difficult to impossible. The board brought him back, fearing that if it didn’t, no qualified successor would ever be found and the association would die, not from lack of fine programming — Ms. Drucker has been an unparalleled presenter — but from spending more than revenues could cover.

When deficits grow faster than contributions and sponsorships, weary supporters drift away. And Ms. Drucker was a master of ignoring budget or board to book a stellar performer. Mr. Milano, who had headed Carnival Center fundraising, had been brought aboard to provide the financial rudder, but finances never deterred Judy Drucker from doing whatever she wished.

The association’s board, says Chairman Bob Hudson of Baker & McKenzie, thought the only solution was a more businesslike approach so that financial supporters could see that the organization is viable, capable of carrying out its mission.

So the board last week moved Judy Drucker aside, paying her expenses for a year, giving her a monthly stipend as a consultant, paying $140,000 in salary and setting up a $400,000 annuity for her — the latter funded fully by board member Adrienne Arsht, TotalBank chairman, a blessing for an organization $2.4 million in the red that could not muster such a guarantee. Had the struggling association closed with Ms. Drucker in charge, she’d have received nothing.

To her friends, what rankled was the heavy-handed image of her departure rather than its inevitability. They hated the word "ousted" in a Miami Herald headline. "They should have made her a queen," said one former board member, giving her a grand title but isolating her from actual operations.

But the association does plan a coronation: Several hours after she was voted out by a board that she notes is composed of her close friends and financial backers, she had in hand a press release headed "Judy Drucker, South Florida’s icon of classical music and dance, to be honored at 40th anniversary celebration marking internationally famed impresaria’s departure as artistic director of Concert Association of Florida." The release called for a "major celebration" at a date to be announced — likely, Mr. Milano says, to be in winter or spring.

Before then, the association will change. Mr. Milano will cut staff — a team that merely presents, he says, doesn’t need as many players as one that produces shows, too. The association’s only job, he says, is to book, promote and sell tickets.

Booking will be an issue. Judy Drucker knows everyone. She gave icons their start in this region, booking them when nobody had heard of them. She keeps in touch, they’re grateful, and she has been able to call on top performers to headline her series. Booking isn’t Mr. Milano’s forte, so he plans to bring aboard an expert.

But this year’s program is nearly set. Ms. Drucker has booked Moscow Chamber Orchestra backing baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Dresden Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Russian National Orchestra, the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, the Philharmonia of London and more — all wonderful, big, costly programs with breakeven near to impossible, even with major sponsorships. Importing 90 or more musicians costs money.

Mr. Milano plans to keep booking big-name orchestras but eliminate operatic performances because the Florida Grand Opera fills that niche, which doesn’t seem vital to association audiences. His focus is to meet community desires that the Carnival Center’s own presenting team bypasses.

That will lead in 2008-09, he says, besides the association’s existing series, to performances of classic jazz, pop, rock and doo-wop — now classics in their own right. The association has a financial advantage in doing this: As one of the Carnival Center’s four resident companies, its rent is below even non-profit rates.

But Mr. Milano also sees hope from a growing audience for the classical repertoire. Association ticket sales, he says, rose this year at its new Carnival Center home, and some Broward series patrons even began buying Miami tickets.

So look for even more classics: Perhaps two years off, Mr. Milano looks to fill the huge gulf left by the Florida Philharmonic, which folded while awaiting construction of the long-delayed Carnival Center.

Ms. Drucker built a pickup orchestra for some association programs, using former Florida Philharmonic musicians, New World Symphony members, local musicians and a few out-of-towners. Mr. Milano plans to grow that group, creating a core of 75-90 musicians under the house name Festival Symphony Orchestra and seeking sponsors to give that symphony more work.

That, he feels, would broaden classical variety here. The visiting Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and touring orchestras under the association’s own aegis perform master works, but the Festival Symphony could have a far larger repertoire to serve families and younger audiences — and Mr. Milano is looking to youth, recruiting younger board members to complement an aging association leadership.

He envisions this new orchestra playing in neighborhoods, at high schools and outdoors, much as the Dallas Symphony did when he was with it. It all hinges on sponsorships — and fundraising has been Mr. Milano’s forte.

Those great hopes all rest on the foundation that Judy Drucker laid over 40 years, bravely and brashly delivering performances no one else could in a community that many had branded a cultural wasteland.

Without her proving that Miami did have an audience for culture, we might never have had a Miami City Ballet or a New World Symphony or — we say hopefully — a Festival Symphony Orchestra. Without her little black book of famed performers, we might never have seen the great musicians who became almost commonplace here.

She was, and is, one of a kind.

"Her legacy is all around us," Mr. Hudson said. "Judy’s contributions are beyond the specific programs that she’s put on our stages."

But when she chastised Mr. Hudson 10 days ago for taking away her baby, he told her the truth: "You have a very sick baby" that had to be placed in other hands to nourish it back to full strength.

Judy Drucker is now a free agent. She said hours after the board voted her out that she was considering a new series — her four-year non-compete agreement would allow her to create one in Broward, whose performing-arts center has sought her help. She could also be sought by Miami-Dade groups to book the showpiece act of a gala, or by existing organizations in Miami-Dade that need help. She will be in big demand.

Meanwhile, the concert association’s board will seek the remaining $110,000 it owes the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a $360,000 performance fee. It will be looking for money to pay other creditors, too.

And the show will go on. Great performers will grace our stages. Great hopes for the future will abound. This is Judy Drucker’s legacy.

The concert association will some day change its phone message. Its Web site won’t show her face on every page, and its history will not be merely her history.

But when great performers step onto our stages in the years to come, make no mistake: They will still be performing for Judy Drucker’s Concert Association of Florida. Advertisement