Albert Syeles is co-founder and president of Romanza, an organization that produces several of St. Augustine’s major events.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Tell me about Romanza and the events it brings to our community.
Romanza produces St. Augustine’s Romanza Festivale of Music & the Arts, St. Augustine’s Celtic Festival Music & Heritage Festival, St. Augustine’s St. Patrick Parade, Romanza’s Collage Concert Series and other small events and activities.
Romanza is the grassroots umbrella organization for dozens of independent arts and culture groups and individuals. Members include arts nonprofits, bands, troupes, individual artists, non-artists, businesses, etc. Through collaboration, Romanza achieves an operational and financial scale not possible by most of its members on their own, from which they all then benefit.
Romanza was founded in June 2009. Twenty-two representatives from St. Augustine cultural organizations and businesses got together, formed a committee and created a mission statement. They wanted to work together to gain recognition for the vibrant cultural scene here.
They specifically wanted an annual festival to showcase our abundance of talent, both resident and touring. The group also selected the name Romanza after a previous production by First Coast Opera and the 1997 hit album by Andrea Bocelli.
Romanza united the St. Augustine arts, culture and heritage community and provided a significant stimulus for growth both for them and the whole community. A spirit of collaboration now exists that multiplies creativity.
In its first two years, Romanza produced two 1940s “swing dances,” a black history tour and a fair at Villa Zorayda museum and instituted the “Romanza Gathering” mixers.
In 2011, we produced our first St. Patrick Parade and our first Celtic Music & Heritage Festival in cooperation with local businesses.
In 2012, we continued the parade and Celtic Festival while introducing our main mission event, Romanza Festivale of Music & the Arts.
Since 2013, Romanza has presented grassroots concerns of the arts community by communicating with county and city boards and commissions on carefully chosen topics and maintains active memberships in the Chamber, Visitors Bureau and Visit Florida.
Since 2016, Romanza formed and continues to lead a community Performing Arts Center committee, an affiliation of many of the arts organizations that are also members of Romanza, which in 2019 became a separate nonprofit corporation chaired by Romanza's president.
The COVID crisis depleted most of Romanza's cash reserves in 2020. That impact was partially reduced by grant contract amendments with our TDC, with the State of Florid, with Visit Florida, and by COVID-related grants, as well as the generosity of individuals around the U.S. and local businesses.
Romanza Festivale became a virtual online event in 2020, and it included a full day featuring unique presentations by our international Celtic performers who had been scheduled for our Celtic Festival, which had been cancelled at the last minute. Festivale returned as live in-person event in May 2021.
The parade, Celtic Festival and gatherings were suspended in both 2020 and 2021 and returned live in 2022.
Romanza’s events enjoyed record attendance in 2023.
How did you first become involved with Romanza?
In 2008, former Mayor George Gardner suggested we start a festival to celebrate the city’s 450th anniversary coming up in 2015.
Over several months, we interviewed over 200 people to hear what kind of festival the community might want. We discovered that they wanted more than a one-time event. They wanted an annual festival. In June 2009, they appointed me volunteer president and board chair.
I see that you’re also a musician and composer.
I was never a confident live performer. But I enjoy composing and arranging for solo piano, small bands and full orchestras. I’ve collaborated and recorded via the internet with musicians across the world: U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Cairo, Israel, Russia and Brazil, in many genres: classical, jazz, pop, country, R&B, folk, “world,” rock, new age, techno, etc.
My “Christabel Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra” won 11 first-place awards in 2022 and 2023 for Best Composer or Best Film Score at international film festivals in London, Toronto, Las Vegas, Munich, Rome, Istanbul and India, plus six honorable mentions in New York, Madrid, Seoul, Tokyo, Zagreb and at a second festival in Rome, as well as nominations in Los Angeles and Cannes.
What do you enjoy most about being involved with events like those presented by Romanza?
I am attracted to opportunities where I can help make a positive difference. I got to know so many talented folks here who wanted to work together, and they seemed to think I could help with that. How could I refuse?
You are also president at The St. Augustine EpiCentre Alliance. Can you tell me about that and your role in the effort?
Most of the same folks and organizations that created and are involved with Romanza made me abundantly aware of their desperate need for performance, exhibit and rehearsal space.
Over the years, the problem has continued to get worse and worse. The venues that our community used to provide for arts, like school auditoriums and churches, have been filling up with many more students and congregations, as well as weddings. So, there’s even less venue availability than there was 20 years ago.
At the same time, the growing population has brought more and more demand for cultural experiences, as well as demand to participate in them. Folks want to be in theatre productions, orchestras, bands, dance groups and art exhibitions, etc.
County residents could use five or six more appropriate cultural facilities of various sizes, similar to Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, but scattered across places like St. Augustine, World Golf Village, Julington Creek, Palencia, Hastings and U.S. 1 South. Our bustling cultural community could fill all their calendars instantly.
The EpiCentre Alliance was formed in 2019 to address part of that need. “The EpiCentre Alliance” represents 10 independent performing arts organizations to plan and raise funds for St. Augustine's first performing arts center. Working with Vavarde consulting, we have devised a strategic plan for “The Shell at St. Augustine,” which has already attracted significant investment. We are currently in talks with several properties located close to St. Augustine. Stay tuned.
How do you like to spend your free time?
What free time? [Smiles]