REDLANDS - Concertgoers who hadn't done their homework might have been surprised Saturday night to see a smaller Redlands Symphony Orchestra on the stage of the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel.
Why were there fewer chairs on stage than we saw three weeks ago for the symphony's first concert of the season?
Don't worry; the answer is not D, that the orchestra has been downsized. It hasn't been. The woodwinds, brass and percussion will be back for the symphony's Nov. 10 concert.
You'll get a passing grade on the quiz if you check C, that the Redlands Symphony's second concert of the season was for strings only and featured new concertmaster Jeanne Skrocki in "The Four Seasons."
And you'll get an A if you also check B, that the sound of the symphony's strings alone was beautiful, and E, that Skrocki's solos were energetic, exciting and thoroughly enjoyable.
You get extra credit for checking F, that Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" and Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings" made a delicious shish kebab of music strung together on a symphony program.
And you get even more extra credit for explaining that the harpsichord that was in the back of the orchestra for "The Four Seasons" counts partly as a stringed instrument. It has strings, though they hide inside the instrument and are not played with a bow, as are the strings of the violins, violas, cellos and basses. The harpsichord's strings
are plucked with a mechanism activated by pressing the keys, and harpsichord is commonly used as an accompaniment in baroque music such as Vivaldi's.
With harpsichord on board, the concert opened with "The Four Seasons" - all four of them. In his preconcert remarks, music director Jon Robertson said you usually hear only one of the "Seasons" in a given concert.
That's true, and it was interesting to hear all four one after the other. "The Four Seasons," for those who need a brief review, is a series of four short concertos for strings and solo violin, each one evoking one of the seasons of the year, from spring through winter.
They are all familiar, even to many people who don't go to symphony concerts, because parts of them have often been used in movies and commercials.
As familiar as they are, it was refreshing to hear them live in Memorial Chapel and hear how rich the sound of the strings can be - orchestra and soloist.
And it was interesting to hear them all in one sitting and to contrast the lighter, lilting sound of "Spring" with the "busier" and also more languid sound of "Summer," followed by "Autumn," with a hint of winter's chill creeping in, and finally "Winter," with "shivering" violins.
There's much more to the music than that, of course, and I began wondering what I would hear in "The Four Seasons" if Vivaldi hadn't associated those four concertos with spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Whatever I would have heard Saturday night in "The Four Seasons" if they had been called "Four Islands in the Caribbean" or "Three Men and a Baby," I would still have heard Jeanne Skrocki playing intricate solo violin parts with ease and making beautiful music out of every season of the year.
The second half of the concert opened with Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," another piece of music many people have heard outside of concert halls.
This poignant piece, originally the second movement of Barber's String Quartet, was written in 1936, according to Chris Myers' program notes, and was played at the funerals of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and Grace Kelly. It was also performed following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and is used as the theme in the film "Platoon."
Even though the "Adagio" is so familiar, it was still beautiful Saturday night, and there was that something extra that you get only in a live performance.
The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings" in C major, opus 48, another familiar piece of music but also well worth hearing live.
It's music full of emotion, excitement, subtleties and the sweet, sweeping sound of strings, from the higher violins and violas to the rich, deeper underpinnings of the cellos and basses.
That wonderful string sound will still be in the orchestra when the woodwinds, brass and percussion come back next month - and those instruments add their own colors to the orchestral palette - but it was a treat to hear strings alone Saturday night.