Less is more, except when more is more, as when the grand Casavant organ at Memorial Chapel opens up a battery of pipes to explode a sound that fills every corner of the hall—such as Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Timpani, and Strings. The piece was the focus of the Redlands Symphony’s March 22 concert with mostly only the string sections, but it delivered so much more.
This concert with less presented marvelous musical literature the audience seldom hears, but seemed to enthusiastically embrace. And when performed with the brilliance, commitment and mastery as the orchestra's string section did for this concert, the music of Bach, Dvorak, Barber and Poulenc is welcomed, indeed.
Aside from the sensational Poulenc concerto, the most intriguing work may have been the familiar and comfortable Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by JS Bach. Three violins, three violas, three celli and bass, all standing (celli excepted), seemed to visibly hand the lines to each other, allowing the audience to watch and hear the music in a delightful way that is not possible with a recording.
Or, the most intriguing work may have been the “Capricorn Concerto” by Samuel Barber, with oboe, flute, and trumpet joining the strings. The orchestra is blessed with outstanding principal players, Francisco Castillo, Sara Andon, and David Scott, respectively, who played in perfect balance with the strings.
Barber's angular work, with scaldingly difficult meter changes, kept the musicians riveted and intensely focused on the music, each other, and conductor Jon Robertson. The orchestra seamlessly delivered the unusual effects - harsh dissonance in the solo instruments in the first movement, oboe and trumpet floating over pizzicato in the different sections in the second movement, solo instruments against a cello ostinato in the third movement. With great clarity, the strings maintained a litheness throughout that lifted the piece off the page.
Or, perhaps the most intriguing work was the simply beautiful “Serenade in E major” by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, a lush piece that showcased the heart of the orchestra, the strings. They maintained the distinct character of each of the five movements, expressing the ebullient nature of the work as a whole while shifting from the lilting waltz to the romp-filled scherzo to the elegant larghetto.
But the most amazing piece was likely the Concerto for Organ, Timpani, and Strings by Francis Poulenc. Soloist and world-renowned organist Frederick Swann, whose work has taken him to the major organs of the world, stepped into the Casavant console and did not disappoint, opening the piece with a chord that would have sent the chandeliers crashing if there were chandeliers at Memorial Chapel. Just as suddenly, the organ backed off, with lone, almost sterile notes against the aliveness of the stings. Quiet, then rousing, the organ and strings worked back and forth, until they settled into full integration.
Only twice did the organ completely overpower the strings, when even a doubling of the strings couldn't stand up against the drive of the instrument that comes alive with the orchestra only occasionally.