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Redlands Symphony Orchestra, pianist Lisa Leonard triumphant in concert

01/27/14 • by Betty Tyler • The Redlands Daily Facts

I’d be tempted to say the Redlands Symphony Orchestra’s concert of Scandinavian music Saturday night was an attempt to bring on the winter we’re not having in Redlands this January.

But though the mention of Norway and Finland brings pictures of ice and snow to mind, the music of Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius in Saturday’s concert in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel was heartwarming, stirring and invigorating.

And though that music certainly is not icy, it has a sense of northern landscapes and light that’s different from the heavier 19th-century German music of Brahms, for example. That’s not to say all Scandinavian music sounds alike, nor that this music was lacking in seriousness or substance.

There was plenty of struggle and triumph in Saturday night’s music — and melodies to melt the iciest heart. But the music’s power and beauty were expressed in the accents of Grieg’s Norway and Sibelius’ Finland.

Both composers were part of the 19th-century trend toward nationalism in music and the music of each is strongly associated with his native country.

What characterizes Norwegian or Finnish music — or Swedish or Danish music, for that matter? In his preconcert remarks, Jon Robertson, the Redlands Symphony’s music director, who has lived in Sweden and directed an orchestra in Norway, used the words “gracious elegance” in connection with Scandinavian music.

There was a gracious elegance in Saturday night’s concert, and some elegant and exciting music making, especially in the concert’s centerpiece, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor.

Robertson said that concerto, written in 1868, had been one of the most frequently played piano concertos 25 to 30 years ago, but that it has fallen out of the repertoire a bit since then.

It’s certainly familiar. If you have even a nodding acquaintance with symphonic music, you’d recognize it right away, even if you can’t whistle a theme or two off the top of your head.

Pianist Lisa Leonard made that almost-too-familiar concerto fresh, exquisitely beautiful and exciting in her performance with the Redlands Symphony.

It wasn’t her first experience with the Grieg concerto, but it was the first time she has returned to it since performing it with the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center in 1990 when she was 17.

That 1990 performance helped launch a career that has included performing around the world, but it’s likely that with 24 more years of living, learning and making music under her belt, Leonard brought even more to the Grieg concerto Saturday night than she did when she was 17.

And she brought a lot — technique and fireworks in a piece that demands both, but also a musical sensibility that made what could have been a tired warhorse into a thing of satisfying musical beauty.

Did I mention that the Redlands Symphony contributed its share of Norwegian beauty, matching the excitement of Leonard’s performance?

The orchestra also made powerful music in Sibelius’ tone poem “Finlandia” and his Symphony No. 2.

The concert opened with “Finlandia,” another familiar piece and perhaps the first thing many people associate with Sibelius.

Sibelius wrote “Finlandia” in 1899, when Russia imposed a strict censorship policy on Finland, according to the Redlands Symphony’s program notes by James Keays.

The music is connected to a patriotic poem and it “has virtually become Finland’s second national anthem,” according to Keays’ program notes.

I had the hymn-like theme from “Finlandia” going through my head most of Saturday morning, knowing “Finlandia” was on the evening’s concert, and on Monday morning it’s still in my head. Many of you also know that tune as the hymn “Be Still, My Soul.”

That theme, which builds from stillness to triumph by the end of the piece, can stir even those of us who are not Finnish, and there’s plenty more in “Finlandia” to enjoy and be inspired by.

And the relatively short “Finlandia” was only a teaser for the full Symphony No. 2 that came after intermission.

Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, composed 1900-02, is as rich, satisfying and dramatic as a symphony by Brahms or Mahler, but it has a more northern feel, that ineffable Scandinavian something — at least that’s how I heard it. I may be incorrectly reading Scandinavian stereotypes into the music, but the Redlands Symphony Orchestra read it and played it with gorgeous orchestral color, subtlety, excitement and sweeping beauty.

It was not your Beethoven or Brahms, great as they are, but was a refreshing and triumphant conclusion to the Redlands Symphony’s musical journey to Scandinavia.

It was a trip well worth taking.

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