DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The London Symphony Orchestra is known for its striking interpretations of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Daytona Beach grew famous from its beaches, biker bars and Busch Series car racing.
Yet every two years, the symphony pays a two-week visit in a culture clash that brings Tchaikovsky to the land of tank tops and tattoos. Even the renowned soloists who perform during the symphony’s stays appreciate Daytona Beach’s unconventionality as a classical music destination.
“Biker bars sound great,” says pianist Emanuel Ax, who’s performing the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 during the symphony’s visit, which began with a concert Friday.
Violinist Sarah Chang even admits to being an occasional fan of NASCAR races, watching them on television sometimes in her hotel room. Miss Chang says friends gave her a list of biker gear to buy for them when she came to perform Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1.
“I think I probably saw more Harley-Davidsons than [in] any other place that I’ve ever been to,” says Miss Chang, who visited Daytona Beach once before.
The symphony anchors a two-week International Music Festival that this year includes jazz, Celtic, klezmer and flamenco performances.
The festival’s audience is almost as widely varied as the musicians, reflecting Daytona Beach’s eclectic citizenry of blue bloods, NASCAR fans, bikers and a sizable black population.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some of the locals won’t cruise to see the London Symphony Orchestra on their Harley-Davidsons,” says Bonnie Miller, an original organizer of Bike Week, one of the nation’s largest biker festivals, which is held every February in Daytona Beach.
Besides Bike Week, this city of more than 70,000 residents is home to Biketoberfest, a biker festival in the fall; the NASCAR-fueled Speed Weeks; college spring break; and Black College Reunion, an annual street festival attended by tens of thousands of young people. International Speedway Corp., the largest promoter of NASCAR racing, also makes its home here.
Some of the symphony players have been known to visit the city’s popular biker bars, such as the Boot Hill Saloon, or go on motorcycle rides when they are in town.
“Through the years, they’ve got kind of a relationship with the bikers, and they would go to the Boot Hill Saloon, and then the bikers come to the concerts,” says Eric Lariviere, general manager of Central Florida Cultural Endeavors Inc., which runs the festival.
For their part, the soloists enjoy performing in cities where classical music isn’t an everyday experience.
“It’s far more important for the London Symphony to do concerts in Daytona Beach than come to New York … because in New York there are other choices,” Mr. Ax says.
Smaller cities also tend to be more welcoming places, where musicians are invited into residents’ homes for dinner, notes Miss Chang, who has a long relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra.
“They make that extra effort to make you feel like you’re at home,” she says. “I can’t tell you the number of times where I’ve gone to a slightly smaller city and the people there take that extra amount of care for you.”
The relationship between Daytona Beach and the London Symphony Orchestra dates back to 1966, when city leaders decided they wanted to diversify the city’s reputation. They wrote 100 letters to some of the world’s leading cultural institutions offering to form a relationship but only received a single encouraging response ? from Ernest Fleischmann, then manager of the London Symphony Orchestra.
“Mr. Fleischmann actually drafted in the letter a full festival ? all the programs, a full orchestra, chamber music, educational programs,” Mr. Lariviere says.
The symphony visited annually during the summer until 1970, when local support faltered, causing an almost 15-year hiatus. The orchestra resumed visiting in the mid-1980s but this time just every two years. When it started, the festival cost $200,000 to stage. It now costs $2.5 million, with most of that raised from donors and the rest covered by ticket and merchandise sales and a small amount of public funds.
Although local officials don’t track the festival’s economic impact, it’s only a fraction of Daytona Beach’s special events. A 2001 study put the economic benefit of the area’s two biker festivals at $744 million, NASCAR events at $561 million, spring break at $196 million and Black College Reunion at $145 million.
However, city leaders believe the festival gives the area cultural cachet.
“It’s a good marketing tool for the destination,” says Susan McClain, director of public relations for the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “If we’re targeting people who like to go on cultural vacations… then we can point to that.”
While locals acknowledge that the London Symphony is a crown jewel of the area’s cultural events, they are reluctant to rate it any higher than the city’s other special events. Those would include the Bike Week crowd-favorite tradition of coleslaw wrestling — with bikini- and T-shirt-clad women slogging it out in a pit of mayonnaise, oil and shredded lettuce.
“The culture you will find on Main Street during Bike Week, that’s culture too,” Miss Miller says. “Just a different type of culture.”