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Redlands Symphony Orchestra opens its 65th anniversary season

10/27/14 • by Betty Tyler • The Redlands Daily Facts

The Redlands Symphony Orchestra opened its 65th anniversary season with a Saturday night seduction — in the form of Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Don Juan.”

In spite of the reputation of Don Juan, one of literature’s best-known womanizers, this concert was not a one-night stand, but the continuation of a love affair with music.

For some in the audience in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel, that love affair began many years ago. Others may still be in the early stages of getting acquainted with classical music, having the thrill of hearing some pieces for the first time.

But whether you’ve been married to orchestral music for decades or have just started dating the likes of Beethoven, Brahms and Bartok, there was music to love in the Redlands Symphony’s season opener.

After the passion of “Don Juan,” there was the Wagnerian spell of “Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music” from Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre” and finally Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s lyrical and exciting Violin Concerto, which for me was the most seductive music of the evening.

In his pre-concert remarks, Jon Robertson, the orchestra’s conductor and music director, said it’s an adage in concert programming that a season should begin and end with barn-burners.

“We’re going to burn the barn,” he said, and not just one barn, but “a lot of barns in the neighborhood before this night is out.”

Redlands doesn’t have as many barns as it did in 1914 when a lot of the town’s polling places were in barns (for a list of Redlands’ Nov. 3, 1914, polling places, see the Oct. 26 100 Years Ago in Redlands feature in the Redlands Daily Facts), but there were musical flames rising from the orchestra Saturday night.

And at the end of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, a friend said it was amazing that soloist Marina Lenau’s violin didn’t spontaneously combust.

But before we burn Tchaikovsky’s barn, let’s go back to Strauss’s seductive “Don Juan.” This piece of music, composed in 1888, is significant in music history as the first tone poem, a new musical genre telling a story in music, according to the Redlands Symphony’s program notes. Robertson said it is also a very difficult piece for the orchestra, considered in its time the most difficult orchestral piece there was.

As for the story in the music, “it’s definitely rated in the latter part of the alphabet,” Robertson said.

The Redlands Symphony burned through the technical difficulties to seduce the audience with music full of Don Juan’s anything-but-subtle personality, contrasted with more lyrical romantic episodes. It was certainly the wild, passionate musical ride Robertson promised before the concert when he advising those in the audience to fasten their seat belts.

After “Don Juan,” we stepped back into the 1850s, when Wagner composed “Die Walküre,” part of his “The Ring of the Nibelung” cycle of operas.

I have said before that Wagner is not one of my favorites, and “The Ring” cycle has moments that are so well-known they can almost be cliches, but I opened my mind and found a lot to like in the Redlands Symphony’s performance of “Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music.” There are reasons why this music has endured more than 150 years, and the Redlands Symphony romanced Saturday night’s audience with every one of them.

That was another barn burned, heating up a rich German soup of melody and drama.

After intermission it was out of the soup and into the lyric beauty of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, the music of the evening that seduced not only my heart but also my soul.

This is another piece that is very difficult, especially for the violin soloist. In fact, because of its difficulty for the soloist, this concerto, composed in 1878, was not performed until 1881, according to the Redlands Symphony’s program notes.

Joseph Kotek, who advised Tchaikovsky on the solo part, and Leopold Auer, to whom the concerto is dedicated, both refused to perform the premiere, saying the piece was impossible to play.

It was not impossible for Marina Lenau, a Ukrainian-born violinist who is completing her doctorate in music at USC.

She and the Redlands Symphony made the difficult gymnastics sound satisfyingly musical and the lyrical passages almost painfully beautiful, and many in the audience broke out into not only applause but even cheers at the end of the first movement.

A three-movement concerto’s second movement is typically slower and more melodic, contrasting with faster first and last movements. The second movement of this concerto has a melody that made me feel Saturday night as if my soul was expanding — and that’s a very seductive feeling.

The final movement is fast and dramatic, and Lenau made all that fast, furious, difficult playing sound as musical as the slower, more lyric sections. Her violin did not burst into flames, but it would not have been surprising to see smoke rising from it and from the orchestra.

There was not a barn left standing.

The musical love affair continues Nov. 22 when the Redlands Symphony Orchestra will play Handel’s “Water Music,” Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 and Telemann’s Trumpet Concerto in D Major with David Scott, the symphony’s principal trumpet player.

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