Soloists ruled the night at the Redlands Symphony Orchestra's season-closing concert, and not just pianist Jose Menor, who performed Gershwin's "Piano Concerto in F."
Section principals' virtuosity made possible the programming of Gershwin's demanding works, which included "Catfish Row" from "Porgy & Bess" and "An American in Paris."
Menor, classically elegant in demeanor and presence, was only one of several stars in the inventive, restless work as principal trumpet David Scott, principal clarinet Kathryn Nevin, and concertmaster Todor Pelev, among several others, demonstrated a level of musicianship that reminded the audience of how fortunate we are to have this quality in our neighborhood.
In the concerto's second movement, Scott, against the clarinets, played with lazy jazzy clarity, making everyone sit up and listen intently after the fury of the first movement. Pelev, like all the principal soloists, neatly handled the huge range of pitch, and played with sweet commitment to the movement's languid sensibility.
Scott absolutely commanded "An American in Paris" with a warm and sassy, yet leisurely, melody, with brilliant, clear tone, and Nevin morphed her usually caramel-toned clarinet into a punchy, edgy and brash sound.
Pianist Brian Chan delivered a powerful solo which drove the first movement of "Catfish Row," Pelev's weepy, rich solo defined the theme from "Summertime," while the dazzling marimba work in the percussion section was nothing short of amazing.
Menor's unaffected, quiet approach belied his total mastery of the piano as he played with impeccable technique, whether playing blistering-fast runs or tricky arpeggios, and thoughtful artistry, whether playing agitated octaves or light and mysterious melodies. In the concerto's second movement, especially, Menor and conductor Jon Robertson seemed to challenge each other to deliver the more sensitive rendering of the music on their respective instruments - Menor's piano and Robertson's orchestra.
Robertson, in fact, shaped and sculpted the entire program of complex and unusual musical ideas, and held together the ensemble through the difficult jazzy syncopated rhythms. He shifted the orchestra from one mood to the next with breath-taking pauses - not too long, not too brief - and in "Catfish Row," with its multiple moods, shaped lines and guided graceful, careful entrances.
In "An American in Paris," the orchestra performed with a grand busy-ness without being chaotic to depict the edgy Paris city streets, then shifted neatly from the frenzy, with Pelev's solo violin in the lead for a graceful, patient slow section. That's where Scott's fabulous trumpet solo took over - a little bit uppity, a little bit conciliatory.
Gershwin's orchestral music can't be called beautiful, but it is captivating. Robertson led the Redlands Symphony Orchestra and all of the soloists through a potential minefield of musical tricks to deliver a completely satisfying concert that makes us crave more.