As Fort Lauderdale looks forward to receiving the internationally acclaimed Vienna Boys Choir in concert Saturday Feb. 16, an introduction to the lady who is responsible for their arrival and for the creation of the South Florida Symphony, now in its fifteenth year, is a Valentine swap between a world-class musician and the community she loves.
Sebrina Maria Alfonso grew up in Key West, a sixth-generation conch with Cuban roots. An encouraging sixth grade music teacher opened the doors to operatic and classical music for her. Fast forward to Naples Italy where her family had relocated when Alfonso was in high school. She remembers walking into a theater one afternoon.
“They were doing La Bohème and everyone was bawling their eyes out. It was an ‘aha’ moment for me,” she says. “That is when I decided to conduct.”
Alfonso’s career in music should make South Florida grateful that this is where she loves to live. She was accepted for study under the tutelage of some renowned teachers. She won prestigious awards. She had and still has offers to embrace larger markets and has given up significant opportunities in order to return to her roots, first in Key West and now in Fort Lauderdale. Alfonso is well trained to deal with the financial hardships of an orchestra and is not afraid of the gamble.
“From the time I was a student, I was putting orchestral groups together. That pattern began to repeat,” she says. “My student years were my broke years. Sometimes I’d be invited into a program to study with a master like Harold Farberman. All the musicians would play poker at night. They’d get pissed at me because when I won, I’d leave the table with my cash because I needed it to buy food.”
The summer of ’97 found Alfonso back in Key West and talking to friends about starting an orchestra there. Her strong connections to the community fueled the fundraisers that she inspired. Hurricane George in ’98 almost derailed the project and Alfonso knew that she would have to move back to Key West permanently if her dream of a symphony orchestra in her backyard was to have any chance of success. “The reality was I wanted to move on from teaching. I had a board of directors in place in Key West. We needed to pause for the storm cleanup,” she says. “After that, I had to figure out how to get musicians for an orchestra. There aren’t enough of them living in Key West. I had to bring them in, and not for just one performance. I wanted to do a full season.”
One early challenge was importing the talent she needed.
“I began to tempt musicians I knew by saying, ‘If you had a choice of a group of people that you would enjoy sitting next to in an orchestra…’ This was a huge enticement,” she says. “In an orchestra, you don’t have a cubicle. You are up against the next musician. It’s body odor, it’s perfume, it’s all sorts of close proximity issues. I wanted musicians who are happy with each other. Who interact almost the way jazz players do when they jam together. Today we have about 100 musicians that we can call on.”
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the tanking of the stock market hit Alfonso’s orchestra harder than any hurricane. Snowbirds constitute a big part of her market. Her orchestra survived years when they were scarce. Along the way, she acquired the life she had hoped for.
“I got to live in Key West, close to my family. I got to work with great musicians. I got to develop community programs for children,” she says. “More than anything else, I was proud that my family and friends saw what I do, what my talent is all about.”
In 2000, Alfonso sensed an opportunity that entailed her relocation to Fort Lauderdale. An orchestral group that served the same market as her Key West orchestra had terminated. She decided to fill that gap, and her South Florida Symphony is now at home in a 590-seat theater in the Broward Center.
Alfonso’s calm and cordial demeanor while at her office managing the artistry of her symphony is in sharp contrast to the passion she can whip up while on the conductor’s podium. But she also found passion unexpectedly in that office when her board asked her to interview Jacqueline Lorber, whom she then hired as the symphony’s president and CEO.
“We worked a few months together and denied our attraction to each other. We were almost mean to each other because we didn’t want to acknowledge it. We were both in other relationships,” she says. “To me it was clear that she would be the love of my life. We live and work together which some say is not a good way to have a relationship, but we have been together for three years. We are happy together, but how it came about is something I am not proud of it because people got hurt in the process.”
Robert Wilson, Chairman of the board for the symphony describes the interaction of the two ladies as a success.
“Sebrina and Jacqueline have very complimentary work styles. Jacqueline, a multi-tasker by nature, is gregarious and enjoys engaging people with the Symphony so she handles most of the business activities like marketing, public relations, audience
development and fund raising,” he says. “Sebrina focuses on the music. She maintains the relationships with the musicians and programming. Like many musicians, she has a natural proclivity to technology and computers, so website development and electronic purchasing of tickets fall to her. Their love of the symphony makes them passionate about its success and boundaries between personal life and symphony don't really exist."
Jacqueline Lorber notes that the current season is 30 percent subscribed which is a very high rate for an orchestra of its size.
“We have very loyal supporters and then there is always that last minute rush for tickets,” she says.
Does Alfonso have personal plans for another move?
“No. This is where I love being,” she says. “Maybe I’d like to travel a bit and say yes to some invitations to do some guest conducting but my dream is to build this orchestra to the point where it has a full time staff of musicians, and then retire knowing that I can hand off to my successor a symphony that makes beautiful music for South Florida.”
Visit SouthFloridaSymphony.org for more information about Sebrina Alfonso, the symphony, and the upcoming performance of the Vienna Boys Choir.