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Benjamin Wallfisch, one of three candidates for music director, conducts Redlands Symphony concert

02/01/16 • by Betty Tyler • The Redlands Daily Facts

I’m glad I don’t have to decide who will succeed Jon Robertson as music director and conductor of the Redlands Symphony Orchestra.

Based on the evidence so far, choosing one candidate from the three finalists for the position will be a lot harder than choosing the next president of the United States.

Each of the three is conducting a Redlands Symphony concert this season, and as of Saturday night, we’ve heard two of those three concerts, both of them exhilarating and satisfying musical experiences.

Last Saturday’s conductor was Benjamin Wallfisch, the youngest of the three candidates, but one who already has an impressive resume, including conducting in the U.K., Australia and the United States and composing and orchestrating music for films.

He impressed the audience in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel with his energy and enthusiasm and with a concert of music that was hauntingly beautiful, elegant, playful, dramatic and downright powerful.

“Spellbinding” and “delightful” are some of the words I heard from people in the audience.

On the spellbinding end of the scale was the first piece on the program, the “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams wrote the “Fantasia,” based on Tallis’ Third Psalter Tune from 1567, for the 1910 Three Choirs Festival at England’s Gloucester Cathedral. It’s tantalizing to imagine the “Fantasia” floating through any cathedral, but the Redlands Symphony’s performance of it in Memorial Chapel was magical enough.

The “Fantasia” is for strings alone — a full string orchestra, a group of nine string players and a quartet within the larger group. In Saturday’s concert, the full string orchestra was on stage, while the nonet was in one of the side aisles of the chapel.

I have heard recordings of the “Fantasia” many times, but I think this was the first time I heard it performed live. I love the recordings — I love any music by Vaughan Williams, for that matter — but there’s an extra enchantment when you’re in the same space with the musicians.

The strings on stage filled the chapel with the “Fantasia’s” soaring, almost other-worldly sound, with the smaller group echoing that sound.

This is not music that hits you over the head with loud, dramatic statements, but neither is it thin or weak.

Wallfisch directed the Redlands Symphony’s string players in a “Fantasia” that soared through Memorial Chapel, weaving a mystical musical spell over the audience.

If you are not familiar with music by Vaughan Williams, I recommend getting acquainted with the “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” — and if that enchants you, try almost anything else by Vaughan Williams, including choral music.

After the “Fantasia,” many of the orchestra’s brass and woodwind players joined the strings for Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” Suite, ballet music from 1920.

The “Pulcinella” Suite is not original music by Stravinsky, but is a collection of pieces attributed to 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, though Wallfisch said in his preconcert remarks that the pieces were probably by other composers.

Stravinsky was commissioned to orchestrate the “Pulcinella” music for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, but the result shows more of Stravinsky’s touch than the “stylish orchestration” Diaghilev expected, according to Chris Myers’ program notes.

The result is musical fun, a delight to listen to.

The concert ended with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, the closest thing to a symphonic warhorse on the program.

Though Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is familiar enough to those who know orchestral music, it has certainly not worn out its welcome.

Wallfisch and the Redlands Symphony Orchestra gave a dramatic, lyrical and energetic performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth that was a satisfying conclusion to a well-balanced concert.

The audience responded with cheers, more cheers and a standing ovation.

I am indeed glad that I do not have to choose among the three candidates. Those who attended the concert have an opportunity not to vote but to express their opinions in an online or paper survey. And those who want to hear more from Wallfisch may attend a meeting at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 19 in the Redlands Symphony office, when Lois Musmann leads a discussion with him. For information, call 909-748-8018.

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