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Music Review: 'Portraits in Passion'

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  • | 4:00 a.m. September 16, 2009
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The Sarasota Orchestra began its “Portraits in Passion” series Saturday evening with what looked like a sold-out audience at the Sarasota Opera House, which proves that if you’ve got the goods — even in early September — you’ll draw a crowd.

And did they ever have the goods!

“Portraits” is something like a mentors and protégés program featuring members of the Sarasota Orchestra, who share their stories about their favorite teachers and how they got where they are today.

Keith Carrick, the orchestra’s principal percussionist, was the first in the spotlight following the ensemble’s rousing and romantic performance of Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture,” under the direction of Leif Bjaland. Carrick appeared in the Concerto for Marimba and String Orchestra by the contemporary French composer, Emmanuel Séjourné. After an opening somewhat swiped from the slow movement of Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, the rarely spotlighted marimba took on a life of its own and showcased Carrick’s virtuosity and sensitivity, while giving Bjaland and his band a chance to show off their extraordinary accompanying skills.

Assistant concertmaster Jennifer Best and principal bassist John Miller were up next for an awe-inspiring performance of Giovanni Bottesini’s “Grand Duo Concertante.” Known as “The Paganini of the Double Bass,” Bottesini took Miller through some breathtaking passages, especially in the harmonics-packed cadenzas, which shed an entirely new light on the granddaddy of the orchestra, while Best showed her best with an absolutely beautiful tone and impeccable pitch.

Georges Hüe, a French composer who studied with Gounod and Franck and lived well into the mid-20th century, wrote the vehicle used by Sarasota Orchestra principal flutist Betsy Hudson-Traba. Hüe’s “Fantaisie,” in the hands of Hudson-Traba, was a nice piece of fluff that took on a bit more dimension because of her excellent technique and musicality.

And then there was principal tuba player Jay Hunsberger who proved, once again, that his instrument does much more than oom-pah-pah. In his words, “There is no life before the tuba.” Playing a work by Jan Bach that was commissioned for him by the orchestra a few years ago, Hunsberger brought humor, warmth and skill to this wonderful concerto that was a joy to hear again.

The entire orchestra was shown off in the grand finale, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture.”

Throughout this innovative evening, unobtrusive cameras did their work, ferreting out solo lines played in the interior of the orchestra and allowing us to get an up-close look at soloists’ fingers, hands and embouchures that made this concert a true portrait of passion. It’s good to live in the 21st century with a truly up-to-date hometown orchestra.