Music has always been part of St. Augustine, and musicians have had a privileged place in its history, says Albert Syeles, President of Romanza, an organization that produces cultural events in the city: "Four hundred and fifty years ago, when Don Pedro Menendez founded St. Augustine in 1565, he made sure that his favorite court musicians were among his colonists. Then, shortly after his arrival here, Menendez slaughtered all of Jean Ribault's French troops, but he spared the French musicians."
In the late 19th century, as the city began attracting visitors, the Ponce de Leon Hotel was built here by Henry Flagler. Shelves says that Flagler "made sure that the finest the musicians were the central figures in hotel entertainment. The hotel itself was, and remains, a masterpiece of architecture and art, including Louis Comfort Tiffany's original stained glass windows and the eight figures in the Grand Parlor of the Ladies of Shakespeare."
The arts and culture community has a long history in the city, he adds: "with live music, a teeming blend of cafes, small galleries, historic sites, museums, shops and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between performers and spectators. It's no surprise that an arts and culture community formed here long ago, and continues strongly. Creative people are drawn to areas that provide inspiration." With centuries of history, a rich heritage in architecture, narrow winding streets and natural beauty, the Nation's Oldest City attracts both artists and tourists.
The Romanza Festival in May continues the tradition with ten days of music and dance performances, concerts, art shows, dramatic productions and more. This year's event was headlined by Cantus, "the premier men's vocal ensemble in the United States", Jacksonville's The Big Orange Chorus which performs a cappella, Romanza's Dance Kaleidoscope, and a Classic Theatre world premier "Sweet Emmaline- The Musical Journey of Debbie McDade" starring Mama Blue.
The event, says Syeles, "is teeming with real experiences in the real world? stimulation, not escape. This extraordinary Festivale, presented by our community, offers indigenous street-level culture - active, participatory recreation." The product of collaboration between dozens of cultural organizations and businesses, Romanza showcases the city's music, dance, theatre, art, cuisine and heritage.
The Romanza Scholarship was instituted to promote new opportunities for the arts by supporting the talent of the community's creative students. Two scholarships are awarded each year to graduating seniors who are also enrolled at the St. Johns County Center of the Arts and who plan to major in performing arts at the college level.
In 2015, the Romanza Scholarships were awarded to Isaac Barzo, who is studying Guitar Performance and Vocal Performance & Composition at the FSU College of Music, and Alex Miller, who joined the UNF Music Flagship program for Jazz Guitar Performance.
Romanza also organizes the Celtic Arts and Heritage Festival in March, with food, music and, Highland Games; and the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade. Monthly Gatherings bring together people in the creative community to socialize, communicate and network. The Monthly Gatherings are open to all individuals and cultural organizations, members and non-members alike. They draw people from St. Augustine's arts, culture, heritage and business worlds.