Conductor Jon Robertson has said he always works to raise the performance level of the Redlands Symphony Orchestra with every concert. For the opening concert of the orchestra’s 65th season, the orchestra met the challenge with in-your-face confidence as they played the rigorous “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss, dug in to master the equally technically demanding Wagner piece, “Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music,” and came back from intermission to glisten and soar on Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with soloist Marina Lenau.
It was a mighty, and mighty celebratory, program on Saturday night, played with all the musicality Robertson could have hoped for.
“Don Juan,” perhaps, challenged the orchestra the most as it required everything from full orchestral bombast to hushed and intricate solo work, the latter for which the hall, Memorial Chapel at University of Redlands, is best suited. The absolutely huge sound of Strauss’ dense orchestration in the opening and repeated “hero” theme swirls off the walls into a mélange of noise – albeit pretty grand noise – whereas the elegant details are finessed and floated intact to the very reaches of the chapel: poignant and rich clarinet solo, calming and gliding oboe solo, and the full-of-drama dark chords at the end after all the noise abates.
Consistently outstanding throughout was the horn section, practically shouting out Don Juan’s dramatic, swashbuckling entrances, with nary a bobble. How fine it is to be able to have such confidence in the horn section.
Wagner’s work required the same flexible approach from the orchestra. Horns still nothing short of great, trumpets equally great, the orchestra proved responsive to the extreme changes in mood. The outstanding principal musicians, especially David Scott on trumpet, remind the audience how blessed we are to have such fine players available for us to hear.
Plunging into their immense well of energy, the orchestra glowed for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and soloist Lenau thrilled the audience with a wonderfully artistic and musical performance.
This work demands that kind of musicality to interpret Tchaikovsky’s lyrical sensibility, which it couples with technical obstacles that test the best. Whether or not Lenau dropped any notes on those repeated speedy runs is immaterial – her commitment to realizing the work’s beauty was unwavering.
Lenau tends to crouch slightly when attacking the extraordinarily demanding phrases, a posture that distracts somewhat and suggests she’s barely going to make it.
Still, tender and careful with the opening, Lenau delivered an easy warm tone, and built the artistry with varied approaches to the repeated phrases, clean and clear high notes, and an obvious sensitivity to Robertson and the orchestra. In fact, watching soloist and conductor play their respective instruments brings great satisfaction to the listeners, who are also watchers.
Despite a carefully subdued orchestra during the solo sections, Lenau’s violin sound did not penetrate well the orchestral sound, perhaps a function of the liveliness of the hall or the instrument’s own tone.
The 2014 Redlands Symphony Orchestra is not the one Robertson started with 32 years ago; it has become a joy to behold and hear when it can play such grand music so well as they played on Saturday night.