Sarasota Orchestra stirs musical passions

Bradenton Herald – Years before Bradenton resident John Miller became a refined double bass player for the Sarasota Orchestra, he was a rocker.

For a heavy metal band.

He had the big hair. Yelled lyrics. Strummed an electric guitar. The whole shebang.

“It was quite a transition,” Miller said, looking back to that time in high school.

The 43-year-old’s love for rock music took him on an unexpected path. It’s a path the musician will share with audiences during Sarasota Orchestra’s season concert opener, “Portraits in Passion,” 8 p.m. Saturday at the Sarasota Opera House.

The concert will spotlight the influences of five orchestra members through video segments that show how their love for music grew through mentors.

Miller is thrilled to be one of the featured artists in the program. He will perform a solo, too. Double bass players don’t usually get that type of star treatment, he said.

His passion for music began during the formation of his heavy metal garage band. His twin brother took guitar lessons and one of their best friends was a drummer. So naturally, the brother and the best friend turned to Miller as their future electric bass player.

By junior year of high school, Miller had aspirations of being a rock star. The plan was to head to California from Virginia to make it to the big time. But first, he wanted to get a college degree in music.

He discovered universities don’t give degrees in electric bass, though.

Miller decided to learn the string bass instead. The next day, the would-be heavy metal superstar was at his high school’s string department asking for help.

“They kind of laughed, but they let me in,” Miller said.

He auditioned at James Madison University with very few lessons under his belt, and got accepted.

His college music professors had a profound influence on him.

During college, he attended a summer music festival in New York with members of the city’s Metropolitan Orchestra and faculty members from Juilliard. Miller was awestruck. It was his first experience with an outstanding orchestra.

Miller’s musicality has matured since then. As a youth, the raw energy of music attracted him. But as he got older, he grew to cherish the ability of expression in classical music.

“You can have that power, you can have that energy,” he said. “But then, you can have these moments of sheer beauty and sensitivity.”

During Saturday’s concert, Miller will play Giovanni Bottesini’s “Grand duo concertante.” He calls it a virtuosic showpiece that brings the double base’s music into the forefront of the symphony.

Other featured orchestra members for the evening are flutist Betsy Hudson Traba, Jay Hunsberger on tuba, percussionist Keith Carrick and concertmaster Jennifer Best.

Conductor Leif Bjaland said these artists and other members of the orchestra were so touched by music that it was impossible for them to go into any other career direction.

“This passion, this calling if you will, is at the center for what this concert is all about,” said Bjaland, who couldn’t escape his musical destiny either. “Being a musician is so much more than a job.”

The conductor, who always had melodies running through his mind as a child, wants to keep the passion of music alive in the area, especially in light of budget cuts the Sarasota Orchestra made last week. It has cancelled its 2010 Sarasota Music Festival, Valentine Pops and Southern Serenade series. Orchestra staff have taken a cut in pay and slashed a few other programs.

But it is still going into the season strong when it comes to music.

“The process, the act of making music is of such tremendous positive benefits,” Bjaland said. “It’s such a positive force. An optimistic, joyful activity in terms of the people who are actually creating it and those who are listening to it. It’s invigorating.”

With that in mind, Bjaland said the orchestra sees itself as mentors for the next generation.

published Sept. 10, 2009

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