Here’s a little quiz. (Don’t worry; it’s really short.)
1. Who made giving (a lot) to the arts cool in Sarasota? 2. What is love?
The answers came in January at Bea-Dazzled, the sell-out Florida West Coast Symphony gala honoring Bea Friedman. With Anne Folsom Smith chairing and designing the ballroom for the fifth straight year; Vivian Kouvant in charge of the banquet details; Flori Roberts, Bill Wagy and Ilene Friedman creating the Bea video; and three maestros presenting a unique Bea musical program, the symphony gala just raised the party bar.
Everybody wanted to Bea there, except for maybe queen Bea herself, who wasn’t sure she liked the tribute idea at all. Anne Folsom Smith, who knows her as well as anyone, says, “Bea has given so much to the symphony and other causes in this community, but she always gives the credit to others. It’s never about her. So this event was not easy. She had to be convinced.”
When Anne was asked to chair the gala again, she couldn’t say no, either. “Bea took me seriously when I was a youngster interviewing with her 20 years ago. I’ve designed three houses for her. Chairing this event is my gift of love to her.”
And that’s how it was for everyone involved from beginning to end. Each friend offered a gift of love. Diamond Sponsors of the event were Bea’s children, Harvey, Ilene, and Sy David, who will never forget their father’s love of music, and how he attended all their music lessons. (All of them? Sounds scary.) Emerald Sponsors Alisa and Ernest Kretzmer were grateful for Bea’s inspiring them with the “joy of giving while we’re living.”
So here’s the second answer first. Who made giving cool? Take a guess. Bea and her husband, Allan, discovered the symphony on a lark one night when they first came to Sarasota 40 years ago. And they were shocked by how “amazingly good” it was for a small town. Bea has been supporting the symphony ever since.
“When she donated a million dollars to the symphony endowment in 1999, she made it cool to give to the arts. Other people followed her lead,” Margaret Wise told me.
I decided to wear a nice dress and then regretted it, because we were all freezing to death in our décolletage. No one at the Ritz would turn up the air conditioning even though it was almost as cold in there as New York. Five hundred of us, and we couldn’t warm the place up. A cheering note was jewelry everywhere for the silent auction.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Barbara Simon, the symphony’s chief development officer, said. “We wanted to represent all price points so everyone could buy.”
Barbara McSweeney was in charge of a table that had two of her own beautiful jewelry suites. “I love to support the symphony,” she said. “My son Morgan is primary first clarinet in the Youth Symphony. He’s 15 and just came back from playing Florida All State.” The Youth Ensemble was playing chamber music as we came in.
Almost everyone in town was there—Lee and Bob Peterson, Virginia Toulmin in a white sequined dress from her lady in Thailand. “Every sequin was sewn by hand,” she said, introducing her friend, Roy Adams, who’d flown in from New York. Tana and John Sandefur and John and Joan Brand floated by. Joan was wearing a pound of intricately designed gold necklace that she’d purchased in Dubai. Mary and Jack Geldi were all excited because their daughter, Juliet, who was a piano finalist in the FWCS competition in her high school days and is now an architect, just got engaged over Christmas. Joan Mendel said it was the biggest and best party she’d ever seen. That sentiment was echoed a lot.
All the ballet and Asolo people were there, too. Roz Goldberg looked great in a black tuxedo suit with a deeply plunging neckline and a diamond choker. Wendy Resnick, who was promoting the Maria McGill fashions, promised to take me to Sally’s to get a fake fall. I want to have as much hair as she does.
Rebecca Baxter and I slipped into the ballroom for a quick peek at Anne Folsom Smith’s design. It was done in black and white with towering centerpieces of white tulips and was wonderful. Brent Greeno of Sights and Sounds was setting up for the orchestra, and I begged him not to make it too loud. The sound at some of these events is so amped you want to shoot them instead of writing a check.
“Don’t worry, I’m only miking the strings,” Brent promised. Thank God, someone listens. The sound was perfect.
Then Rebecca and I went to see Bea, who was sitting on a throne in a silver dress, looking as regal as an untitled American can look. She was surrounded by chairs Anne Folsom Smith, Vivian Kouvant and Beverly Marsh, who was in such a big dress with crinolines underneath that Rebecca had to rearrange the whole tableaux several times to get the whole skirt into the picture.
“Where did you get your dress?” I asked Bea. I could tell she wanted to say, “None of your beeswax.” But she’s a real lady. First she said, “It’s a secret.” And then she admitted the truth. “I sewed it myself.” We all got a good laugh. I liked her diamond necklace and her silver shawl, too.
In fact, I needed that shawl. I didn’t have a fur, a sweater, a blankey, anything. I was pretty much dying through the Anjou Pear Tatin and beef tenderloin until the chocolate piano came for dessert. Then I wished I had a hammer.
Mayor Lou Ann Palmer silenced the crowd and issued a proclamation for “Bea Day” in Sarasota. Flori Roberts, breathtaking in taffeta, presented the video, and Bea spoke and wowed the crowd. Then the music started. Maestro Leif Bjaland conducted the full orchestra all in B. There were medleys themed around B words, Bea’s home towns, and Bea’s religion. It was particularly fun when Leif transformed the symphony orchestra into a klezmer band playing Hava Nagila, which is the Jewish Ode to Joy. The Ritz rocked.
Maestro Dirk Meyer conducted the orchestra for soprano Marguerite Krull, who sang Chicago, My Kind of Town and the champagne chorus from Die Fledermaus. Dirk also conducted In the Mood, for ballroom dancers Elizabeth Cartier and Maxim Lototskyy. The biggest “wow” factor of all came when Maestro Robert Levin (from the Music Festival) composed a piece to the letters in Bea’s name ad-lib on the piano. It was improv, it was brilliant, and none of us will ever forget it.
Bea’s love for her late husband, Allan, has never faded, and the power of that love has enriched everyone she’s ever touched. She still says it’s all for him.
Florida West Coast Symphony is 59 this year. It’s the oldest continuing orchestra in Florida and has four resident chamber ensembles that perform 75 concerts a year. Its youth orchestra program is well known, and FWCS also offers music classes to musicians of all ages, as well as its three-week Music Festival in June that draws college-age musicians from all over the world. As Shakespeare said, “Music is the food of love.” That said, Bea night was A+ all the way.
Leslie Glass is a playwright and the author of 14 novels, including the best-selling crime series featuring the NYPD's April Woo.