Piano man: Spotlight on Flores at Chamber concert

It’s been 30 years since Marcos Daniel Flores has performed Saint-Saens’ Concerto No. 2.

The last time he played it, he was a music major at the University of Puerto Rico and his parents were likely in the audience. “They were always so supportive,” he recalls.

His performance of the well-known piece at Sunday’s Vero Beach Chamber Orchestra concert comes at an emotional time for Flores. It’s been only a few months since he played at a memorial service for his mother Diana. She had survived the eye of Hurricane Maria passing over the family home in Juncos, Puerto Rico, last fall, when, after extraordinary efforts by her family, she and her husband were evacuated on a mercy flight to Vero Beach. Her first day here – her 80th birthday – she saw an oncologist hoping to resume the cancer treatment that the hurricane had interrupted. It all proved too much for her, though – she died 10 days after her arrival.

Diana Caraballo-Flores was the matriarch of a remarkable family that has woven itself into Vero’s classical music scene, with two of her three sons becoming church music directors here. Diana herself served as judge when, over the years, her sons held mock competitions to determine which is king of the keyboards – organ or piano.

Both Marcos and Jose Daniel Flores played at a packed memorial service in Vero. A similar service was held in Puerto Rico, where Diana’s husband is a well-known retired Baptist minister.

While Jose Daniel Flores moved on from his post at Community Church and now leads a large choir in Albany, N.Y., Marcos Flores has stayed – as he promised he would, not only leading the very active music program at Christ by the Sea Methodist Church, but performing in concerts there and around town. He teaches piano to students from high school to well into retirement, and to the young winners of a long-established piano scholarship through Vero Beach Opera.

“The beautiful thing about Vero is that it’s a small town and we musicians can create our own little world here,” says Flores. “We help each other. We all love kids and we want them to succeed. This creates a sense of unity.”

That world of music yields benefits for Flores as well. With those contacts, twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, he casts up to 100 people in a choir and orchestra for cantatas at Christ by the Sea.

What he can’t find locally, he recruits regionally. Musicians and vocal soloists drove from as far away as Stetson University and Miami on the Saturday before Easter to join voices recruited from Christ by the Sea as well as church and community choirs, including the Vero Beach Choral Society; Flores spent a year conducting that group as well.

Now, for the first time, Flores is the featured soloist with the town’s community orchestra. In a concert that wraps up the Vero Chamber Orchestra’s 10th season, he will join no fewer than 50 musicians on stage. Those performers, conducted by Vero Beach High’s band director, Page Howell, are divided evenly between top high school orchestra members, music professionals and semi-professionals including teachers and adult amateurs, some of whom have dusted off their old violins or clarinets from their own high school days.

“What is beautiful to watch is the intergenerational aspect. We have high school kids next to college people next to professionals and even retired people. It’s beautiful chemistry,” says Flores.

“Our only requirement is that you can play and you can come to rehearsals,” says Tom Fritz, who founded the orchestra with Paul and Linda Spiwak.

All three had played with Treasure Coast Symphony, a Martin and St. Lucie County-based community orchestra, and were looking to establish an intergenerational orchestra in Vero. The new orchestra would make classical music “accessible and affordable to everyone,” Fritz says. Today only a donation is taken at the door, and that money goes to buy the sheet music for the concert, which then goes into the Vero Beach High School music department’s permanent library. So far, the orchestra has donated an estimated $15,000 in music.

The orchestra also raises funds to help student musicians travel to larger venues to play. Last year, it donated $7,900 toward the school orchestra’s trip to Vienna, Austria. “If we have a particularly successful year, we give scholarships to the seniors who have given their time to play with us, as a thank-you for their dedicated service.”

Flores joins a distinguished list of soloists who have played with the orchestra – all of them with ties to Vero. They include Linda Spiwak, a violinist and teacher of 30 years who was assistant concertmaster of the Utica Symphony; Michèle Witt, who studied piano at Mannes College of Music and later earned a performance certificate from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London (while running the U.S. equities division of Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette); and cellist Joe Loehnis, formerly with the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra who for a time worked as a golf pro in Vero. He is now earning an MBA at the University of Wisconsin.

Jacob Craig, who leads the extensive music program at First Presbyterian Church in Vero, played harpsicord and piano in two different concerts with the orchestra. St. Edward’s School graduate Eric Willet studied flute in Vero with Vera Guimaraes before graduating magna cum laude from Yale University in economics; he is currently working in Los Angeles. Judi Lampert, who has a master’s in music performance from Illinois State University, played flute with the Illinois Symphony for 20 years and currently teaches flute at First Presbyterian’s Primo music school.

And finally, Matt Stott, director of the Indian River County School orchestra program who teaches at both Vero High and Gifford Middle School. Stott, a violinist, played with Flores in a January concert at Christ by the Sea.

“Matt and I are colleagues, but we’re also good friends. I arrived in Vero 13 years ago and we’ve been playing together ever since. We have always tried to help each other,” says Flores.

He recalls the time Stott invited him to conduct the high school orchestra in a Beethoven overture. Flores obliged him by dressing up as Beethoven, with the help of the costume department of Vero Beach Opera. Flores played the role to the max, donning a wig and pretending to be deaf when they called him to the podium.

These days, it is his family that pretends not to hear as Flores finally sits down at the piano at 11 p.m. to practice the Saint-Saens concerto. “This has been a very challenging year to get my regular practice in,” he says. “My family, they don’t even hear the piano. It’s just ambiance.”

Fritz, a retired Naval commander (CK), is another stalwart in the Vero music scene: Along with the community orchestra, he founded the Indian River public school orchestra program currently run by Stott.  It is in the spirit of community that he is donating his time and talent to the community orchestra’s concert – two rehearsals plus the performance, after two months of practicing on his own.

The concert takes place 2 p.m. April 15 at the Vero Beach High School Performing Arts Center. And that too is a cause close to Flores’ heart: His two children have both participated in the school’s music programs. Son Marcus plays drums in the school band and daughter Diana sings in the choir and intends to major in voice in college next fall.

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