Our Sarasota Orchestra offers several series of concerts, and “Great Escapes,” performed in the intimacy of Holley Hall at the Beatrice Friedman Orchestra Center, may be one of the most interesting. The programming is similar to that of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a mixture of familiar and light classical selections, spiced up with music from the movies and stage.
Lacking the availability to rehearse in a proper rehearsal and performance facility, the orchestra rehearses in Holley, where the sound is, shall we say, intimate. "Great Escapes" uses the core orchestra of around 44 players, augmented with others required for the programmed works. In this space, a capacity audience of about 465 has the privilege of hearing the orchestra “up close” — virtually in one’s lap, which is much different than in a normal concert venue. Such intimacy provides the audience with an experience that is the closest they may ever come to the thrill of actually standing on the conductor’s podium, being in the midst, totally enveloped and yes, even caressed, by the sound of a live symphony orchestra. Very special, indeed.
Those present on opening night were presented with quite a palette of a program conducted by Stefan Sanders, and was themed “Amadeus.” I didn’t really understand the connection other than that the program began with the overture to Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro.” It was, however, a nicely balanced program with two soloists, tenor Jason Collins and John Miller, principal bassist of the orchestra.
Collins, who has had quite an operatic career in world class houses and hasn’t been heard in Sarasota in several years, sang Schubert’s “Ständchen” (orchestrated by Offenbach) and “Träume” from Wagner’s “Wesendonck” Songs. His voice is that of an operatic helden tenor, and scaling it down to the intimate requirements of song and the hall were not easily achieved, but he made a good impression.
Principal bassist John Miller gave a truly virtuoso performance of the final movement of the Bottesini Double Bass Concerto # 2. Now the double bass is not known as a solo, much less virtuoso instrument, but there have been several who were outstanding on this leviathan of viols. Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, was one such virtuoso among others, and we can certainly count Miller’s performance as being that of a conqueror of this instrument. The piece is filled with rapid passage work, most of it in a stratospheric register for the instrument, but Miller played with accuracy of intonation and beauty of sound throughout. As a former bass player, I can truthfully say it was thrilling to hear.
Other works on the program, seemingly chosen at random, included the second movement from Beethoven’s Symphony #8, with its unmentioned tribute to the newly invented metronome of Maelzel, Puccini’s “Preludio sinfonica,” a very early work which certainly paid homage to Verdi in some of the string writing, but was already speaking in Puccini’s musical voice, and a rousing rendition of “Times Square 1944” from Leonard Bernstein’s musical “On The Town.”
There were more musical favorites as well, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” selections from film scores for “Vertigo,” “The Magnificent Seven,” and “Around the World in Eighty Days,” ending with an orchestration of Liszt’s “Second Hungarian Rhapsody.”
Quite a potpourri indeed, but all well played by a Sarasota Orchestra, which clearly enjoyed its return to the venue of classical music after a weekend filled with “Doo Wop Classics” in the Pops Series at Van Wezel Performance Hall.
The versatility, adaptability and constant high level of performance of the Sarasota Orchestra is — and should be — a continuing source of pride for all of us who hear this great ensemble.