Nearly 100 people gathered at Liberatore's Ristorante in Bel Air Town Center on a recent Sunday for dinner and a "roast" of Sheldon Bair, founder of the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra.
The timing was good, too, as the orchestra is in its 40th, or "ruby" season. Rubies are red, and so is rare meat, lightly roasted.
Local comedian Larry Noto did the honors, and the crowd guffawed its appreciation. But he faced two challenges during the April 2 event.
First, 10 minutes into the program, the PA speaker blew, sending tendrils of smoke rising into the air. After that, raised voices were the only amplification.
Second, there wasn't a lot to tease Maestro Bair about. The worst Noto could dig up was the roastee's liking for bad jokes, like this one: "You can tune a violin. You can tune a piano. But you can't tuna fish." Groans greeted this Bair original.
Noto revealed that the SSO founder is known to be a "coffee snob," and that the maestro had once brought a chocolate cake to a wedding because he knew the wedding cake would be white and he preferred chocolate. A little weird, but hardly scandalous. Such are the challenges of "roasting" an all-around good guy with few - if any - skeletons in the closet.
The genial crowd was made up mostly of musicians, current or former. Three people had played the first season - Margaret Holmes (bassoon), Allan Andreycak (percussion) and Carol Benck (bass).
After a standing ovation, Bair took over the microphone. He thanked Mark and Colleen Grotke, current and past presidents of the SSO's board of directors, longtime orchestra manager Kathy Frawley, and board vice president, Diane Sengstacke, who organized the roast.
Barbara, Bair's wife of 29 years, whom he met when she played oboe in the SSO, and their daughter, Morgan, were also on hand. Morgan, a senior at Bel Air High School, confided that her brother Zachary, 22, would not be left out of the fun despite being in London, working on a graduate degree in music technology.
"We're going to Face-time him," she said. "It's a phone call with video chat."
Bair thanked all the volunteers, musicians and non-musicians who have made the 40 seasons of the SSO possible. Then he made a few stops along Memory Lane.
"I started the orchestra when I was 22, and I had no idea what I was getting into," he said. "For the first five years, it was called the Harford Community Orchestra. there were 53 people at our first concert.
"We have had a lot of growing pains over the years, but it has been worth it," he added. "I grew along with the orchestra. We have had a lot of international soloists, like Richard Cassilly and Barry Tuckman, and we have had a lot of composers visit us, like Sir Malcolm Arnold."
He also shared a bittersweet memory of the orchestra's trip to perform in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York in 2007.
"Two of our three buses were in an accident on the way," he recalled. "Five people went to the hospital, and there was $190,000 damage done [to the buses]. We went on to play to a standing room only crowd.
"It was the first time we were above the fold in The Aegis," he recalled.
"A few years later, we went to Carnegie Hall." Bair said. "I got to conduct one number, but the pianist got lost."
"The important part of the SSO is getting together Tuesday night and making music - creating music with all you guys," he said. "We get together and play our hearts out and then share with the community."
"That's what a community orchestra is all about," he said.