Music

Bailey’s back: Cellist played first South Florida Symphony concert 25 years ago

Written By Michelle F. Solomon
March 20, 2023 at 8:37 PM

Cellist Zuill Bailey joins the South Florida Symphony Orchestra for its “Masterworks IV: Dvořák” program, part of the orchestra’s 25th anniversary celebration. (Photo courtesy of South Florida Symphony Orchestra)

Zuill Bailey is feeling nostalgic days before he is set to perform with the South Florida Symphony Orchestra. The Grammy award-winning cellist has a history with the symphony, particularly with Sebrina Maria Alfonso, its founder and conductor.

“I performed 25 years ago in Key West. I may have been their first soloist in their first season,” says Bailey. The year prior to when what was then the Key West Symphony made its debut, Alfonso called upon Bailey to play in a recital with pianist Jeffrey Chappell. “I wanted people then to understand that we weren’t going to be a community orchestra, but the symphony would be made up of professional musicians. They were blown away by Bailey and Chappell.”

Sebrina María Alfonso, founder and Music Director of the South Florida Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of Steven Shires Photography)

The symphony’s first concert, which featured Bailey as a soloist, was inside the Tennessee Williams Theatre on Dec. 11, 1998.

Bailey and Alfonso first connected while in Baltimore at The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. “He must have been in pre-college there and I was a doctoral candidate,” Alfonso says, recalling that his sister, violinist Allison Bailey, had been part of a small orchestra the Maestra had been asked to start at Baltimore’s Goucher College. She had mentioned her brother, Zuill, who was a cellist and Alfonso says she was immediately taken by his talent.

“I’ve watched him grow and become the amazing cellist that he is,” she says.

Bailey has similar feelings about watching Alfonso develop her orchestra into a formidable organization now marking its quarter-century with a series of concerts, which began in November and continues through April.

Zuill Bailey began playing cello at the age of 4 and by 13 years old knew he wanted to make it a career. (Photo courtesy of South Florida Symphony Orchestra)

The “Masterworks IV: Dvořák” program” continues the season on Wednesday, March 22 at The Parker in Fort Lauderdale, Thursday, March 23, at the New World Center on Miami Beach, and Saturday, March 25 at the Tennessee Williams Theatre in Key West. Bailey performs with the orchestra for Dvořák’s “Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104.”

“Here we are 25 years later. It’s astonishing to me. I feel like I’ve been around since the very start of this when I began witnessing her dream come alive at that recital in Key West,” recalls Bailey. “It’s overwhelmingly exciting to come back and play arguably the greatest cello concerto ever written. It is an honor.”

Bailey has been recognized for his mastery of the Dvořák concerto. In fact, his CD “Dvořák Cello Concerto” is listed in “The Penguin Guide to the 1,000 Finest Classical Recordings: The Must Have CDs and DVDs.”

He admits that his “musical partner for 25 years,” a 1693 cello created by Venetian luthier Matteo Goffriller, makes the concerto even more spectacular to play. Bailey’s cello is one of only two made by the stringed instrument craftsman with a rose carved at the top of the fingerboard.

Zuill Bailey with “the love of his life,” his 1693 Matteo Goffriller cello. (Photo courtesy of South Florida Symphony)

“Just talking to you now, I thought of this,” Bailey says. “I got the cello around the same time as the South Florida Symphony was created.”

The special instrument never leaves Bailey’s side, he admits. “It is so dear to me that it travels exclusively with me.” He reveals that he buys a seat next to him as he flies the world performing with “Cello Bailey.”

He remembers when he met what he calls the “love of his life.” After borrowing cellos for “quite some time,” he was introduced to the instrument that had been used for 30 years by Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet. “I knew that it was to be my instrument when I first saw it.”

While the cello is museum-worthy, Bailey says “it is something that needs to be played. And I get to be the caretaker of this magnificent instrument.”

Then he recalls another memory that happened just around the time he discovered his treasured cello.

Born and raised in Key West, Sebrina Maria Alfonso founded the Key West Symphony in 1997. It now plays in three counties as the South Florida Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Meade)

Bailey says he was approached by a producer from Home Box Office (HBO) around 1997 to appear as a murderous cellist on the series “Oz.”

“I had already established myself as a performing cellist. I didn’t want to be an actor. Rita Moreno and Ernie Hudson were on the show, they were actors.” It wasn’t so much Bailey’s fear of not saying the lines believably, but about the profession he had really started building at the age of 13. “I said to the producers, ‘People who don’t know me will think this is me and I don’t want to be seen as something I’m not,’ so they cut almost all of my lines. In fact, no one still knows exactly why the character did what they did,” he says, since most of the time he was on camera in the three episodes in which he appeared, Bailey was playing music.

“Still to this day, people recognize me from that TV show,” he says.

At 50 years old, the world-class cellist who has collaborated with some of the world’s best symphonies says he feels fortunate to return to South Florida to be part of the orchestra’s 25th-anniversary celebration.

Sebrina Maria Alfonso says she always wanted to bring symphonic music to the community that she didn’t have in her childhood growing up in Key West. (Photo courtesy of Steven Shires Photography)

“I have been traveling since my late teens and Florida has been one of the places I have played since the very beginning,” he says. Last March, Bailey performed with the New World Symphony led by guest conductor Roderick Cox.

“It brings back so many memories . . . so many of my Florida memories are about working here with Sebrina. This really is a moment in time to celebrate the evolution of an idea that has been realized – the musical gift that Sebrina wanted to bring home to South Florida,” says Bailey.

WHAT: South Florida Symphony Orchestra in “Masterworks IV: Dvořák”

WHEN AND WHERE: Wednesday, March 22, The Parker, 707 NE 8th St., Fort Lauderdale; Thursday, March 23, New World Center, 500 17th St., Miami Beach; Saturday, March 25, Tennessee Williams Theatre, 5901 College Road, Key West. All shows at 7:30 p.m.

COST:  $25 to $95.

INFORMATION: 954-522-8455 or southfloridasymphony.org

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