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‘Small’ show for Redlands Symphony Orchestra still a big success

03/24/14 • by Betty Tyler • The Redlands Daily Facts

For the past few years, the Redlands Symphony Orchestra has had at least one concert each season that’s smaller — not in musical impact or quality, but in the number of musicians on the stage.

This season’s smaller-scale concert, presented Saturday night in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel, featured music for strings with a few collaborators from other musical families, and it proved to be a delightful palate cleanser between the orchestra’s fill-the-stage-with-musicians concerts.

If you’re a sometime symphony-goer who’s tempted to skip the concerts that don’t pack a full orchestra, just say no to that temptation. Good things do come in small packages, and Saturday’s concert delivered a large portion of musical pleasure.

That pleasure came as much from the pieces chosen for the concert as from the expert music-making that brought them to life.

The program stretched across three centuries, from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, written in the early 1700s, to Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade in E major, written in 1875, and then jumping into the 20th century with Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings from the 1930s and Samuel Barber’s Capricorn Concerto from the 1940s.

Though they are all written exclusively or primarily for strings, these pieces are in different styles from three centuries and by composers from four countries.

Bach spent his life in parts of what would later become a unified Germany, and he died in 1750, before Samuel Barber’s United States of America had become a country.

Dvorak was a native of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, but lived for a time in the United States, and Poulenc, though he visited the United States, was definitely French.

So what ties these pieces of music together other than the strings that play them?

The Redlands Symphony’s season brochure links them with the theme “Connect With the Past,” saying Dvorak, Barber and Poulenc “breathed new life into ‘old-fashioned’ forms.”

The program notes point out that Barber’s Capricorn Concerto is for the same instruments as another of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, No. 2, for flute, oboe, trumpet and strings. And Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings “channels” elements of organ music by Bach and Dieterich Buxtehude.

I would add one more tie that binds these four pieces together, and that is a sense of joy. Each composer expresses that joy in a different way, so the result Saturday night was a rainbow of different shades of joy.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is an old friend, as are all six Brandenburg Concertos, but it had been a while since I’d heard it, and it was pure joy to hear a live performance.

Jon Robertson, the Redlands Symphony’s music director, played the harpsichord and conducted from the keyboard. The three violinists, three violists, three cellists and one bass player who performed the Brandenburg Concerto made enough beautiful sound for a whole orchestra.

This concerto is music that dances for joy, and I couldn’t help smiling as I listened. And someone near me apparently couldn’t keep that inner dance entirely inside. One foot just had to tap quietly to the music from time to time.

For the Dvorak Serenade, Robertson traded the harpsichord for baton and podium, and more string players joined the 10 who played the Bach, though not the full complement of the orchestra’s string sections.

According to the program notes, Dvorak wrote the Serenade at a particularly happy time of his life, and that happiness comes through the music clearly in a feast of beautiful, flowing melodies.

For Barber’s Capricorn Concerto, the Redlands Symphony’s principal flutist, oboist and trumpet player — Sara Andon, Francisco Castillo and David Scott, respectively — joined the strings.

If you’re thinking “Adagio for Strings” when you think of Barber, then think again. His Capricorn Concerto is lively at times, with complicated rhythms and rather angular melodies.

This is not the 19th-century romantic sound of Dvorak’s Serenade, but it has its own beauty and was an effective contrast to the Bach and Dvorak, especially with the addition of flute, oboe and trumpet.

Though this was the symphony’s smaller-scale concert, there was nothing small about the sound of the finale, Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings.

The Casavant organ in Memorial Chapel can make as big a sound as any full orchestra, as anyone in Saturday night’s audience could tell you. Add timpani, played by the orchestra’s principal timpanist, William Schlitt, and you have grand bursts “joyful noise” contrasting with quieter, more reflective passages.

The organist was Frederick Swann who, in his 65-year career, has performed around the world and has been organist at Riverside Church in New York City, the Crystal Cathedral and First Congregational Church of Los Angeles.

Though he is officially retired, he is organ artist-in-residence at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert and is artist teacher of organ and university organist at the University of Redlands.

In his preconcert talk, Robertson said, “There are legends, and then there’s Frederick Swann.”

Swann proved equal and then some to the Poulenc concerto’s bursts of grandeur and its subtler passages.

Poulenc was in his 30s when he wrote this concerto, and, according to the program notes, he had a reputation for witty and irreverent humor in his compositions.

However, he wrote the Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings after the death of a friend and subsequent rediscovery of his Christian faith. In this concerto, according to the program notes, “the wit and humor are still present … but there is a sincerity that sets it apart.”

I found that humor and sincerity combined to create another kind of musical joy, one with that distinct Poulenc flavor.

If you’re familiar with Poulenc’s music, you know what I mean. If you’re not, try sampling some Poulenc. You may find a new musical friend.

And for more musical pleasure, check out the Redlands Symphony’s April 12 concert, this season’s finale. The full orchestra will be back with a concert in honor of the 70th anniversary of World War II’s D-Day.

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