fbpx vie magazine subscribe button

Ten Years of Symphony Redefined

Amping the Cultural Quotient

By Tori Phelps | Photography courtesy of Sinfonia Gulf Coast

The traditional ten-year anniversary gift is tin. But Sinfonia is all good on pie plates and Altoids boxes, thanks. Instead, they’ve decided to give fans a gift: a season of old favorites, new surprises—and Kristin Chenoweth.

Changing the Cultural Landscape

Sinfonia exists because of Demetrius Fuller. At age twenty-five, when many of his peers were still figuring out what they wanted to be when they grew up, he decided to reinvent how the entire Northwest Florida coast experiences music. By that time, Fuller was a professional conductor who had lived and worked throughout the United States and Europe. After a stint with the Northwest Florida Symphony, he resolved to act on his conviction that the area needed something different.

Others agreed. The original group behind Sinfonia’s creation shared Fuller’s vision of a truly stand-alone orchestra that served the community as its mission—one that could make a difference from both a cultural and an educational standpoint.

Chris Brubeck plays trombone

The mantra of Sinfonia became “symphony redefined,” and that’s exactly what it’s done. “Many people think classical music is inaccessible,” Fuller explains. “We’re taking away the notion that the arts are only for a certain demographic by incorporating fun events, great music, and amazing guest artists.”

Symphony audiences are traditionally empty nesters with disposable incomes. And those folks are certainly welcome at Sinfonia performances, Fuller stresses. But Sinfonia is also about reaching a community that may not be familiar with classical music. Families, kids, young professionals—everyone is the target audience.


Ten years in, that original mission hasn’t changed. If anything, the focus on education and greater accessibility has only expanded. Sinfonia’s community partnerships, including a variety of programs that are serving seventy thousand children, are setting the standard in this region and beyond. Two years ago, for example, Sinfonia added a sixty-member youth orchestra. It’s an amazing opportunity for the kids, of course, but it’s also a chance for Fuller and the Sinfonia musicians to nurture the next generation of performers. Then there’s Paint the Music, a collaboration with the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation for local kids in third through eighth grades. This interactive program encourages students to listen to samples of classical music—last year it was Stravinsky’s The Firebird—and then literally paint it. “It’s fun to see how all those young minds interpret what they hear,” Fuller says.

Sinfonia also has a high-profile collaboration with Carnegie Hall, which provides a nine-month music program for grade-school students. The kids learn a music set, usually on a recorder, and then play with Sinfonia during a spring concert. A record three thousand kids signed up this year, making it one of the biggest components of Sinfonia’s education programs. The massive number is a good news/bad news situation for Fuller, who recognizes its popularity for what it is: a sign that, for many kids, this is the only arts program they experience all year.

Orchestra after performance

The disheartening number of children who aren’t exposed to the arts is why the Sinfonia staff works so hard to provide that contact. Fuller even ropes guest artists into visiting local schools while they’re in town. Some aren’t especially receptive to the idea, but others go above and beyond, like superstar musician and composer Chris Brubeck, for instance. “He’s been to the schools every time he’s been here, even hosting a jam session with students last time,” Fuller raves. “It’s mind boggling. I sure don’t remember Grammy-winning artists performing for us when I was in school.”

Meeting kids where they are is important. But it’s also important to bring them into the world of Sinfonia for performances. Luckily, Sinfonia donors and sponsors subscribe to the same idea, making it a priority to distribute tickets to families who might not be in a financial position to buy their own.

“Fun” is a word that comes up a lot with Fuller. That approach has won over a lot of people who were hesitant about the idea of classical music.

These programs—and a long list of others—are a big part of what makes Sinfonia tick. In the “symphony redefined” environment, action has replaced lip service when it comes to serving youth and attracting a diverse audience. As a result, Sinfonia has thrived over the past decade while other cultural organizations around the country have not.

Then again, they don’t have Fuller on the podium.

Maestro Fuller with orchestra

His desire, as long as he can remember, was to do exactly what he’s doing today. From the time he was a preschooler conducting The Muppet Show in his parents’ living room, the Fort Walton Beach native never wavered from his goal. “Those who know me know I want to be in charge all the time,” he admits with a chuckle.

With Fuller at the helm, Sinfonia has attracted a who’s who of guest artists, starting with an inaugural concert featuring Bernadette Peters. Other notable names over the decade include Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Broadway legend Patti LuPone, and R & B icon Roberta Flack. From a classical angle, Fuller points to Caroline Goulding, who Sinfonia audiences met when she was fourteen years old and who’s now a Grammy-nominated violinist.

Though he protests that he couldn’t possibly pick a favorite guest artist, Fuller concedes that Flack’s 2008 performance would be tough to beat. “She was amazing to work with—a true musician,” he says. “The orchestra loved her; the audience loved her. It was the most meaningful moment of my career from a musical standpoint.”

The Best Is Yet to Come

The biggest name, however, has been reserved for Sinfonia’s tenth anniversary this year. Broadway and television star Kristin Chenoweth takes the stage with Sinfonia at its November 13 gala at the Emerald Coast Convention Center. In addition to Chenoweth, the gala will offer a bit of a retrospective of Sinfonia’s first decade.

Singer on stage

The concert’s old-and-new theme extends to the rest of the 2015–2016 season. Fuller paid particularly close attention to what audiences wanted. After all, it’s because of faithful supporters that there’s an anniversary season to plan. Fuller ended up programming a blend of back-by-popular-demand performers (like Epic recording artist Morgan James) and fresh experiences for the Emerald Coast.

Whether it’s an anniversary gala or a regular season performance, Fuller’s approach is the same: he’s there to have a good time. People frequently ask whether he gets nervous ahead of concerts, but he insists he doesn’t. Rather, it’s a time for him to enjoy the payoff of what Sinfonia has been working toward. It also helps, of course, that he knows the orchestra’s musicians are the best in the region—better, he believes, than what can be found in many major metropolitan areas. So there’s no need to be nervous. “It’s just fun,” he insists of their performances.

“Fun” is a word that comes up a lot with Fuller; it’s no coincidence that the orchestra has nicknamed itself “Funfonia.” That approach has won over a lot of people who were hesitant about the idea of classical music. Purists might grumble a bit over some of the nontraditional content, but they still attend.

Man singing

Fuller refuses to apologize for their repertoire. Sinfonia can—and does—play the classics. But it’s also the place where audiences meet new favorites. “We’re known for taking the classics and weaving them into something you haven’t heard before,” he explains.

It’s a formula that has clicked for residents and visitors. Today, the fully professional organization contracts between sixty and eighty musicians each season and boasts the highest-paid orchestra in the region. Another sure sign of its success is the level of staffing, which in the last ten years has gone from one—Fuller—to eight. What hasn’t changed is the quality of the board. It’s always been an active, working board, Fuller says, with every member willing to get down in the trenches.

That kind of involvement is necessary if Sinfonia is going to continue to maintain its high standards. Patrons often ask Fuller, “How are you going to top that season?” Trying to outdo what Sinfonia has already accomplished is probably the most difficult part of his job, he admits. He’s learned, though, that going outside of what he knows Sinfonia should be for the sake of “different” always backfires. The key is finding inspiration within what they do best: creating great educational opportunities for the community, presenting exceptional guest artists, and showcasing a phenomenal orchestra.

Conducting the orchestra

The good news is that he’s in no danger of running out of ideas for the future. Fuller can rattle off a dozen with no problem—additional focus on the youth orchestra, commissioning new work, starting a music school, and engaging more newcomer artists are just a small sample.

Thankfully, nowhere on Fuller’s personal list is “leave Sinfonia for bigger and better things.” He lived outside of the Emerald Coast for eleven years and still spends quite a bit of time on the road for work. It’s the best of both worlds, he believes: a home base that’s truly home and the opportunity to gain new perspectives through traveling. “No matter what the future holds, I know Sinfonia will always be part of my life,” he says.

And Sinfonia will always be part of the Gulf Coast, at least if Fuller has a say. Though he shakes his head at the sheer audacity of launching an orchestra like Sinfonia when he was in his midtwenties, he’s thrilled that his audacity paid off. Most of all, he’s grateful for the unwavering support Sinfonia has received from the beginning and for a foundation that’s strong enough to carry them through anything. “We’re ready for the next ten years and beyond,” he promises.

— V —

Read Responsibly

VIE Magazine September 2020 Wanderlust Issue, Fancy Camps, The Idea Boutique
VIE Magazine August 2020 Art & Culture Issue, Nathan Alan Yoakum Art
VIE Magazine - Architecture & Design Issue - July 2020
VIE Magazine - Decor and Home Issue - June 2020
VIE Magazine May 2020 Entertainment Issue, Leslie Odom Jr
VIE Magazine - April 2020 Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine March 2020 The Fashion Edit, VONDOM, Alys Beach Fl, Digital Graffiti, Tres Chic, isidro dunbar Modern Interiors, Digital Graffiti Festival
VIE Magazine February 2020 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Travel Issue - January 2020 - Tanzania Safari Cover
VIE Magazine - Women's Issue - December 2019 - Tina Brown Cover
VIE NOV19 Goodness Issue
VIE Magazine, September 2019 Art & Culture Issue, Paul Hanninen
VIE Magazine - August 2019 - The Architecture and Design Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2019 - The Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - June 2019 - Fashion Edit
VIE Magazine - May 2019 - Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine - April 2019 - The Health & Wellness Issue
VIE Magazine - Special Entertainment Edition - March 2019
VIE Magazine February 2019 Luxury Homes & Technology Issue with Robbie Antonio of Revolution Precrafted
VIE Magazine - January 2019 - Southern Sophisticate Issue Cover
VIE Magazine - Special Anniversary Travel Edition - December 2018
VIE Magazine - The Goodness Issue - November 2018
VIE Magazine - The Art & Culture Issue - October 2018
VIE Magazine - Home & Garden Issue - September 2018
VIE Magazine - August 2018 Animal Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2018 Architecture & Design Issue - Subscribe to the magazine!
VIE Magazine - June 2018 Travel & Tech Issue
VIE Magazine - May 2018 Couture Issue
VIE Magazine - The Culinary Issue - April 2018 Cover - Chef James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst
VIE Magazine - The Entertainers Issue - March 2018
VIE Magazine - February 2018 Destination Travel Issue
VIE Magazine - January 2018 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine, The Sophisticate Issue, December 2017
VIE Magazine - November 2017 Art & Culture Issue
VIE Magazine - October 2017 Home & Garden Issue
VIE Magazine | September 2017 | The Stories and Storytellers Issue
VIE Magazine - The Adventure Issue - August 2017
VIE Magazine - July 2017 - Art & Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - The Voyager Issue - June 2017
VIE magazine 2017 March-April Cover South Walton Fashion Week
VIE Magazine - January/February 2017 - The Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Nov/Dec 2016 The Sophisticate Issue
christian siriano vie magazine september october 2016 vie magazine
the modern minimalist issue
the culinary and couture issue march april 2016 vie magazine
the voyager issue alys beach vie magazine january february 2016
cultural issue vie magazine november december 2015
home and garden issue vie magazine september october 2015
the art and style issue vie magazine july august 2015
the wedding issue 2015 May June vie magazine
the food and fashion issue vie magazine march april 2015
the travel issue vie magazine january february 2015
the music issue vie magazine 2014 november december
The Animal Issue vie magazine september october 2014
the home and garden issue vie magazine july august 2014
the wedding issue vie magazine may june 2014
emeril lagasse food and fashion vie magazine
the men's issue january february 2014
the music issue november december 2013 vie magazine
the home and garden issue 2013 october september
the wedding issue vie magazine july august 2013
the artist issue may june 2013 vie magazine
the food and fashion issue march april 2013
the men's issue january february 2013 vie magazine
The Holiday Issue
the love issue july august 2012
the all american summer may june 2012
the entertainment issue march april 2012
the fashion issue vie magazine winter 2011
the home and garden issue vie magazine fall 2011
the anniversary edition vie magazine summer 2011
the wedding issue vie magazine spring 2011
vie magazine the holiday issue 2010 Dec
vintage swimsuits vie magazine 2010 Fall
judith march designer vie magazine summer 2010
wedding giveaway vie magazine spring 2010
holiday gift guide vie magazine winter 2009
emarketing explosion vie magazine fall 2009
tribute to mother's day vie magazine summer 2009
james and robert redford vie magazine spring 2009
zz top vie magazine fall winter 2008
project dreams vie magazine new york fashion week
Sign-up for VIEmail

Sign up for VIEmail