Jon Robertson did not say goodbye at Saturday night’s Redlands Symphony Orchestra concert.
Instead, he said thank you to the musicians, audience and everyone involved with the Redlands Symphony for the 33 years he has been with the orchestra.
Saturday’s concert in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel was Robertson’s last with the Redlands Symphony before retiring as music director and conductor, and the audience obviously knew it.
Dave Maupin, chairman of the Redlands Symphony Association board, emphasized the word love in his remarks before the concert, and love and enthusiasm were in the air as many in the audience couldn’t keep from standing as they applauded Robertson onto the stage before the music began.
For his final Redlands Symphony concert, Robertson chose to begin with music by Beethoven, his all-time favorite composer, and end with Mozart, who he said runs a very close second to Beethoven.
In between was Samuel Barber’s evocative “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with soprano Angel Blue, a 2005 graduate of the University of Redlands.
In his preconcert remarks, Robertson compared the music of Beethoven and Mozart, looking back to his earlier experiences as a pianist in his 65 years of performing.
“If I had to choose a composer that touches me in a very deep way, it would be Beethoven, possibly because of his ability to overcome obstacles,” Robertson said. He talked about the power of Beethoven’s music, and said that, as a pianist, he feels the music in his hands as he conducts Beethoven.
“How wonderful as a parting gesture to do one of his great overtures,” Robertson said of the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 that opened the concert.
In contrast to the power of Beethoven, Robertson said that when a pianist plays Mozart’s music, “there is an elegance, a charm, a simplicity, a purity.” He compared Mozart’s music to a sorbet that cleanses the palate.
For his final performance with the Redlands Symphony, Robertson chose Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, the Mozart symphony that he said is nearest to his heart.
Robertson and the Redlands Symphony Orchestra gave solid, satisfying performances of Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 and Mozart’s 40th Symphony.
The “Leonore” Overture is dramatic and powerful, with the emphasis on dramatic in Saturday’s performance.
And Mozart’s 40th Symphony, though it has the sorbet-like elegance that is Mozart’s hallmark, also is the most original of Mozart’s symphonies, according to James Keays’ program notes, “and has had the greatest influence on future composers.”
It was one of Mozart’s last three symphonies, written in 1788, and it has an intensity that does perhaps anticipate the music of Beethoven that was soon to appear. Maybe that’s why it’s nearest to Robertson’s heart.
Sandwiched between Beethoven and Mozart was an entirely different musical experience, Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a piece composed in 1947. The text is part of James Agee’s essay “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” which later became the preamble to his Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Death in the Family.”
In the stream-of-consciousness text, Agee looks back to a summer evening in 1915, when he was 5, with his family at home in Knoxville. The text and music evoke a warm summer evening with people sitting on the porch and lying on quilts in the back yard, “talking casually.”
The gentle evening is interrupted by the sound of a streetcar, and there is a foreshadowing of death and the plea “May God bless my people ...”
But the effect is gentle and poignant, rather than dramatic, and after Saturday night’s concert it is a fragment of “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” that is going through my head.
Soprano Angel Blue’s rich, warm tone was just the thing for “Knoxville,” though once in a while her tone and the orchestra’s nearly melded into one. She has a voice like velvet that’s luxuriously rich in every register.
With a little research, I found that I’ve heard Blue sing “Knoxville” before — in July 2007 at the Redlands Bowl — and I enjoyed it then, too. That was two years after Blue graduated from the University of Redlands.
After graduating from Redlands, she received a Master of Music degree in opera performance from UCLA, and she has performed with the English National Opera, at the Bregenz and Edinburgh festivals and with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Cincinnati Symphony, among others.
She made her orchestral debut with the Redlands Symphony under the baton of Jon Robertson, so Saturday night’s concert was something of a homecoming.
Homecoming means family, and at Robertson’s final concert with the Redlands Symphony, that meant his extended family joined him on stage after the last notes of Mozart died away.
Standing with his family, Robertson heard Dave Maupin read a message from the Redlands Symphony Association, naming him music director emeritus.
As if that wasn’t enough, then Redlands’ musical theater star Debbie Prutsman came on stage and sang a “Valediction for Jon” as Co Nguyen, the Redlands Symphony’s assistant conductor, led the orchestra.
The audience, provided with words and music inserted in their programs, sang along on the chorus, “May love and laughter light your days ... May peace and music fill your world with joy forevermore. May God bless you and keep you until we meet once more.”
“You certainly know how to make a guy cry,” Robertson said.
“Thank you so much for a magnificent 33 years.”
He wished the orchestra a “magnificent future,” saying, “Your new music director is going to take this orchestra yet to higher heights and I know that you all will continue to support, because it’s that support that’s necessary to grow.”
His final words were, “So to all of you, God bless you and I love you. Thank you.”
To see Robertson and his family on stage and hear his remarks, go to www.facebook.com/redlandssymphony.