The Redwood Symphony is a local community orchestra that’s good at startling its listeners with the extent and imagination of its repertoire, and frequently with the quality of the playing from its all-volunteer membership, as well. What’s also startling is that the orchestra has been in existence for 30 years now.
During all that time, it has been under the musical direction of one man, Eric Kujawsky. Maestro Kujawsky has the bones of a founder of orchestras in him. As a doctoral student in conducting at Stanford University in the early 1980s, he had put together a Stanford Summer Symphony for three years running.
When he earned his degree in 1985, he wanted to stay in the area, he had no orchestra to conduct, so, building on this experience, he founded another one: the Redwood Symphony. He’s stayed with it ever since, while also undertaking other jobs, guest conducting for other orchestras and theatrical groups such as TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, and directing the music ministry at Ladera Community Church.
There were already other volunteer community orchestras in the area. What made the Redwood Symphony different was its choice of repertoire. Maestro Kujawsky loves modern and contemporary music. He knows they can be exciting and appealing, and he does not limit himself to the conventionally “classical.” The Redwood Symphony has performed works by Stephen Sondheim, Danny Elfman, Elvis Costello and other composers of serious quality from outside the standard classical repertoire. The orchestra has even, more than once, collaborated with a Beatles tribute group, the White Album Ensemble, for Beatles songs including orchestral instruments.
When the Redwood turns to more conventional but ambitious, adventurous modern repertoire, such as Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalila” or Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony, extra players are often needed. Kujawsky proudly reports that “really good musicians from the local orchestras, many of them paid professionals, come to play for us for free, because there is no other way they could play the repertoire!” Audiences, too, enjoy hearing these rare works at discount prices.
There’s one achievement the Redwood Symphony is known for above all others. Alex Ross, distinguished music critic for The New Yorker, on the road in 2007 to report on smaller orchestras, exclaimed in amazement, “Who would have guessed that the Redwood Symphony, a volunteer orchestra in the Silicon Valley area, has played all of Mahler’s symphonies?”
That was eight years ago. As of next July, when it concludes its upcoming season with Mahler’s Eighth — known as the “Symphony of a Thousand” in only slight exaggeration of the size of the forces necessary to play it — the Redwood Symphony will have played all of Mahler’s symphonies twice each, including the 10th, the one the composer didn’t live to finish.
I’ve heard a few of these performances. Kujawsky and the Redwood Symphony bring to Mahler a sincerity and belief in the music, and an exciting perspiring energy, that I find more appealing than the polished and award-winning Mahler by the renowned San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. Word has spread, and Redwood’s Mahler concerts are usually sold out.
The 30th anniversary concert, on July 25 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, will feature two modern classics: Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the brutally exciting ballet score that originally persuaded Kujawsky to become a conductor (and which Redwood has recorded), and Carl Orff’s ever-popular and powerfully punchy, “Carmina Burana.” This concert, too, is expected to sell out.
Besides Mahler’s Eighth, the upcoming 31st season will include new works such as a cello concerto by Kujawsky favorite Michael Daugherty and the premiere of a new violin concerto by Henry Mollicone. There will be older rare modern classics, including Samuel Barber’s song “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” and better-known modern works by Hindemith, Shostakovich and Britten. Nor will Beethoven, Brahms or Tchaikovsky be forgotten. Most of these concerts will be at the main theater of Cañada College in Redwood City. Info is at http://www.redwoodsymphony.org/.
It looks like another good season from Eric Kujawsky and the Redwood Symphony.