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Redlands Symphony opens season with blockbusters

09/23/12 • by Betty Tyler • The Redlands Daily Facts

It was a hot night in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel Saturday - in more ways than one.

It may have been the first day of autumn according to the calendar, but in Redlands it was still summer, with the thermometer hitting 98 during the day and a few clouds keeping the evening from cooling off until a few hours after sunset.

In Memorial Chapel, which is blessed with good acoustics but not with air conditioning, the evening never did cool off.

But the Redlands Symphony Orchestra opened its 2012-13 season Saturday night in spite of the heat and played a "hot" concert that was worth sweating for.

In his pre-concert remarks, Jon Robertson, the symphony's music director, promised two blockbusters, and the orchestra delivered them with excitement, subtlety and a rich sound that filled Memorial Chapel.

There was plenty of sweating and fanning in the audience, but the musicians are the ones who must have felt the worst of the heat, wearing jackets or long-sleeved dresses on a brightly lit stage while putting so much energy into the music. But they played as if it were 72 degrees on stage rather than somewhere between 82 and 92.

And so did pianist Anastasiya Timofeeva, soloist in the evening's first blockbuster, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Robertson said that concerto is probably the most played of piano concertos, but that in spite of its familiarity, people don't get tired of it. And it's a rite of passage for pianists, he said; it's a concerto a pianist must have in his or her repertoire.

Timofeeva definitely has it - the Tchaikovsky concerto and what it takes to make seemingly effortless but exciting music. The Tchaikovsky concerto is a challenge to a pianist's technique, but Timofeeva made fast, intricate passages sound as if they were as easy as water flowing downhill - and they were as clear and beautiful as a mountain stream.

She also got a beautiful singing tone out of the piano, both in big dramatic passages and in quieter moments.

And Robertson is right. You don't get tired of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, even though it's so familiar, you just about always know what's coming next.

The orchestra and Timofeeva made a satisfying musical experience out of it. It was so satisfying to me that though I was exhausted when the concert began, I felt refreshed long before the first movement of the Tchaikovsy was over. And that was in spite of the chapel's sauna treatment.

After intermission, which most of the audience spent outside the chapel, the orchestra played Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, a piece that's not as familiar as the Tchaikovsky concerto but that is just as enjoyable, if not more so.

Bartok wrote the piece near the end of his life, when he was ill with leukemia, and it was first performed in December 1944 by the Boston Symphony, according to Jim Keays' program notes. It has become Bartok's most popular work for orchestra.

My first acquaintance with Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra was in the fall of 1981 during rehearsals for the University of Redlands' Feast of Lights. That's because one piece in that year's Feast was choral director Jeffrey Rickard's setting of the brass chorale in the second movement to a text by Douglas Bowman, who was then the university chaplain.

Here's the first verse of Bowman's text, to give you the idea:

"Mary, guard your precious child,

"In his heart grows wondrous mild

"Kingdom fair for those exiled

"On anguished earth now gone wild."

It made a beautiful piece to accompany the birth tableau.

It was so beautiful that soon after that I bought a recording of the Concerto for Orchestra and listened to it over and over. It's a piece that I didn't have to learn to love; I loved it at first listen.

I may have heard the Concerto for Orchestra performed live some time in the past 30 years, but not recently until Saturday night.

And it was love again at the first low notes in the strings. The five-movement piece is much more than the chorale that got me hooked in the first place.

Its themes and rhythms are influenced by Hungarian folk music - not in the same family as your Scottish or German great-grandmother's folk music - and the piece is full of drama and a variety of orchestral colors.

There's even a humorous "interruption" in the fourth movement, parodying Shostakovich's music, which Bartok disliked. Before the concert, Robertson had trombonist Stewart Undem demonstrate the comical-looking bass trombone featured in that comical-sounding section.

There's no single soloist as in the usual concerto, but Bartok called it a concerto because he treats sections of the orchestra in a soloistic manner, according to Keays' program notes.

And all those sections, and individual soloists within the orchestra, brought out all the excitement, color and lyricism of the music.

It was a musical experience that set the blood racing, warmed the heart and blew cool, refreshing breezes through the mind if not through Memorial Chapel.

Robertson's 30th season conducting the Redlands Symphony Orchestra continues with a concert Oct. 13 featuring the orchestra's new concertmaster, Jeanne Skrocki, soloing in Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons."

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