OSO’s 2023-24 season marks Maestro Matt Wardell’s 15th anniversary in Ocala.
Wardell offers one of his amusing asides at a recent pops concert. [MAVEN photo + film]
When Conductor Matthew Wardell led his first Christmas concert with the Ocala Symphony Orchestra in 2009, he substituted a baton for a sock puppet. The bit was an homage to Shari Lewis, the mid-20th-century TV puppeteer known for her jolly handmade friends Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse.
“She was actually a pretty accomplished guest conductor,” Wardell said of Lewis, explaining that the chirpy TV star also gained recognition in the classical music world for her rendition of the Ukrainian holiday favorite “Carol of the Bells,” the piece that inspired Wardell’s impromptu puppetry.
“I conducted that way for that entire piece,” Wardell recalled with a laugh. “I thought, ‘I’m probably going to get fired for this.’”
Of course, he wasn’t. The offbeat moment was one of many unconventional, comedic and teachable moments furnished by OSO’s maestro over the past 15 years, the type of joke or anecdote that shows his knack for grabbing audiences’ attention and showing them how exciting, amusing and provocative classical music can be.
As OSO’s director/conductor over the past decade and a half, Wardell has brought music lovers of all ages to the Reilly Arts Center, the shining art-nouveau performance venue he helped birth from the hollow remains of an old community center.
“It’s exciting to be here for 15 years; it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, but we’ve got a great season planned, and season ticket sales are really good,” Wardell said. “Attendance has been the highest in the last 15 years.”
Indeed, OSO attendance has been the highest since he signed on. In 2023, the Reilly hosted 139 events and 51,230 guests. During the previous season, affected somewhat by COVID-19, the venue held 68 events and 26,000 guests.
Still, a performing arts venue nearly doubling its attendance in one season is nothing to sneeze at.
Wardell and his cohorts shepherded the community arts mecca into existence in 2015. The fundraising didn’t stop there. The Reilly underwent a major renovation with the addition of the NOMA Black Box Theatre in 2022.
An annual event at the park that draws thousands, Symphony Under the Lights, spearheaded by former Ocala Mayor Gerald Ergle, has endured as a holiday tradition under Wardell’s leadership and will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Dec. 1. The Ocala Symphony and members of the Ocala Youth Symphony put on the annual free concert to the community under the illuminated mossy oak canopy of Tuscawilla Park.
At the holiday event and throughout any given season, Wardell bridges instrumental and pop music favorites. Take, for instance, “Bowie and Glass: A Symphonic Tribute,” when Wardell and Adam Volpe curated a 2019 melange of music by David Bowie and Phillip Glass.
Wardell tells students at the Reilly’s recently opened Community Music Conservatory stories that bring a new perspective to composers and their symphonies.
He recounted one of his favorites:
“In Hector Berlioz’s ‘Sinfonie Fantastique,’ each movement comes to us as a guy writing about his own life; it’s kind of autobiographical. In the first movement, he sees a beautiful girl from across the room, and he falls in love with her, and then she doesn’t love him back, so it gets kind of tumultuous. And then at the end, it’s pretty wild. He actually takes opium and it’s like kind of the first musical trip, well before the Beatles were around, and he envisions all these wild things.”
Wardell remembers playing that symphony for the first time in his youth, around the age of the protagonist in the first movement.
“It was really different from what I thought orchestral music was,” Wardell said. “I thought that was just a bunch of really buttoned up, boring old guys that didn’t do things like fall in love or have a lot of feelings, you know?”
Wardell re-creates that same “oh, wow” feeling with his students and audiences. He reveals the timeless tales and moods that lurk inside suites and symphonies. He brings entertainment and enlightenment to each performance.
“The Gazette” talked to Wardell in his car, on speakerphone, while he and his wife—Pamela Calero Wardell, executive director of the Reilly Arts Center—were en route to Massachusetts. In addition to everything else, Matt has carved out time to teach classes as interim director of orchestral studies and visiting lecturer in music at Mount Holyoke College.
“I’m going to be back and forth between Ocala six or seven times between now and December,” he explained.
Commuting between residences isn’t new to Wardell. Born in Jacksonville, he grew up in two different homes owned by parents who’d been divorced since he was 3. Splitting his time between Jacksonville with his mom and Memphis with his dad, he often relied on telling jokes and lightening the mood, keeping things peaceful and pleasant. Those early underpinnings of diplomacy influenced his people skills as did the camaraderie of belonging to a band and orchestra.
He also credited his mother and stepfather, John, for making sure he followed up with (and put up with) his practicing the drums and his participation in his high school band.
When he was 7, he got a keyboard for Christmas. He recalled his dad playing a Beethoven sonata and being surprised he knew how to play. While visiting him in Memphis, Wardell would also play his dad’s jukebox of old 45s. Like most kids growing up in the 20th century, “Purple People Eater” was among his favorites.
“My dad was a concert pianist,” Wardell said. “He took piano lessons from like age 3 or 4 until he was 18. He got accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in London for piano, but he ended up not doing that, he ended up joining the Air Force and then the Navy. So, I never knew that side of him.”
Wardell’s middle school band teacher, Jim Layton, was a big inspiration. Wardell admired him and wondered if he could teach middle school band. A pattern emerged. From then on, Wardell would take his life, projects and music a few steps further than anticipated.
He not only earned a bachelor’s degree cum laude in 2007 at the University of North Florida, but he went on to receive his master’s degree in music at the University of Florida and completed his Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) degree at UF in 2022 with his mentor Raymond Chobaz.
He was studying abroad in Austria in 2009 when Dave Schlenker, then with the “Ocala Star-Banner,” interviewed him on the phone. Wardell was in his boxer shorts, sharing the news that he would become Ocala Symphony Orchestra’s next conductor.
Wardell officially began his tenure with the OSO on July 1, 2009. OSO at the time was performing in the Ocala Breeders’ Sales auditorium. Recalling that time, Wardell joked about playing to sections of the arena labeled “pregnant” and “not pregnant.”
Onstage, he has publicly performed around 400 works in more than 250 live performances. He has led 16 staged productions of large-scale opera, musical theater and ballet works including “La Boheme,” Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin,” “Cosi fan tutte,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Carmina Burana,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd.”
His bio also tells us that he once conducted two performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” with only one day’s notice. The performances received rave reviews.
Wardell has also corralled more than $7 million in private fundraising and $3 million-plus in grant acquisition before shepherding the expansion of the Reilly Arts Center, now a 30,000-square-foot playhouse that houses a 700-seat mainstage theatre, the NOMA black box, and the Ocala Symphony Community Music Conservatory.
He has even started opening the orchestra’s rehearsals so people who cannot attend performances still have the chance to enjoy the music.
Since arriving in Ocala, Wardell has served as a member and president of the Ocala City Council (2015-21) and is currently a member of the College Orchestra Directors Association and the American Symphony Orchestra League. He serves or has served on the boards of the Arts in Health Ocala/Marion, the Ocala Municipal Arts Commission (OMAC), and Young Professionals of Ocala (YPO).
Accomplishments aside, he doesn’t just like to talk about himself. He credits his team and Pamela, whom he got to know while working together. He beamed about her recent milestone: She just graduated from the League of American Orchestra’s Essentials of Orchestra Management program at Juilliard. He posted on Facebook that he and their dog Buckley were proud of his Ocala-born spouse.
“Pam also is a part of this really wonderful program that focuses on six women executives in the (orchestra) industry, zooming with executive directors of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra… she’s really a big part of why the orchestra has grown as much as it has.”
Wardell is especially excited about his 15th season with OSO and is looking forward to upcoming performances such as the “Hungarian Pictures” Jan. 27-28, when he teams up with his mentor, Chobaz, as guest conductor, to lead iconic works by Hungarian and Romanian composers such as Miklós Rózsa’s hauntingly beautiful “Hungarian Nocturne,” to Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” (with renowned pianist Andreas Klein) and the “Dances of Galánta” by Zoltán Kodály.) Events in tandem with the performance include a Hungarian Dinner and Cocktails with the Conductor and Coffee with the Conductor.
Wardell is also looking forward to performing new music he composed with friend Brad DeLoatche as a live soundtrack to a screening of the 1923 silent film, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” starring Lon Chaney, presented by the Ocala Symphony Orchestra with him lead conducting on Jan. 20.
“That will be exciting,” Wardell effused.
“We have a program called Symphony for Schools, and we’re working with a new, Marion County liaison on sending musicians into schools, and we’re working this year on starting a beginning band for kids in third through sixth grades that might not have a beginning band at their elementary or middle school,” Wardell shared. “You know, around 30% to 40% of our students in the conservatory don’t pay any tuition at all.”
Bridging generations is also a big priority for Wardell going forward. The orchestra has, in the past and will continue to, pair older and younger musicians.
Also on the horizon is the New Horizons Band, a beginning band for older adults who picked up an instrument when they were younger but didn’t follow through with it
Bob Reilly, the namesake of and major donor to the Reilly Arts Center, stipulated that he wanted to encourage intergenerational participation, and Wardell is continuing that tradition.
A good start can be found at the Reilly Arts Center’s new conservatory, which has 115 students and counting.
“In our music school, we have a cello student who’s just around 6, and we have a cello student who’s like 86, and they play together sometimes, which is really, really cool,” Wardell shared. “To see two people who are in totally different parts of their life coming together over music is something that has been praised all over the world as a health benefit for both our seniors and our students.”
Between all of his many projects, Wardell still finds time to decompress with Pam and Buckley.
“I enjoy playing video games and the comedy of Dave Chappelle, Nate Bargatze and Tom Segura,” Wardell shared.
“I was recently at the Comedy Cellar in New York and saw Nathan Macintosh, an up-and-coming comedian, and I’ll be keeping up with him, and to disconnect a bit, I play immersive (role playing games) like ‘Fall Out,’ ‘The Witcher,’ and I’m excited about ‘Starfield,’ which is releasing next week.”
The couple also take walks through Ocala’s historic downtown district with their 4-year-old Aussie doodle.
“He’s the celebrity in the family,” Wardell said.