This year, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's Classics season is opening under unusual stars.
The orchestra is warming up for its spring trip to Carnegie Hall, a concert that will see the musicians tackling the massive Symphony No. 3 of Russian composer Reinhold Gliere. Because of that adventure, the season has a Russian flavor, with music by such masters as Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev.
At the same time, the season also strikes an Irish note. Music Director JoAnn Falletta has been spending a lot of time in Northern Ireland, where she leads the Ulster Orchestra. She recently made her debut at the Proms, London's legendary classical music festival, performing with Irish flutist Sir James Galway, and Galway plays at the BPO's season-opening gala tonight.
"Performing at the Proms was a great thrill," Falletta emailed The News from Ulster. "The Royal Albert Hall is immense, regal and magnificent, and has been the site of royal events and great concerts of every type. ... Jimmy was our soloist. He dazzled everyone with his ?spectacular playing and immense charm. It is a happy coincidence ?that he is coming to Buffalo soon after our London concert together."
Russian, Irish, Germanic - it all adds up to a season as colorful and varied as the leaves at Letchworth.
Some programs are unapologetically diverse: Beethoven juxtaposed with Gershwin and Gliere; Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" side by side with Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony.
The upside to such a mad mix is that, whatever your tastes, you are sure to find something you like. Here are the first six concerts of this year's Classics season, and a few reasons why even music newbies might want to clear their calendars. All concerts take place in Kleinhans Music Hall. For information on BPO events, call 885-5000.
Tonight at 8: The opening gala concert, which kicks off with "The Star-Spangled Banner," is always exciting. The music this year has a broad appeal and is just about guaranteed to grab you. Galway is playing Mozart's lovely Flute Concerto No. 2. "The Bartered Bride," by Bedrich Smetana, is unofficially considered the national opera of the Czech Republic, and the overture is a time-honored hit.
This is the first time the BPO has played Harty's "Irish Symphony." Written in 1924, the colorful symphony is full of Irish tunes and good feeling. Its scherzo movement, the gracefully rollicking "This Fair Day," was used as the theme of an Irish soap opera, "The Kennedys of Castleross," which ran from the 1950s into the 1970s.
"The piece is a lyrical, romantic tribute to the beautiful landscape and warm-hearted people of the Emerald Isle," Falletta says.
She has not conducted the piece there, she adds. The Irish audiences like her to conduct American music - and they love that in return, Buffalo will be hearing the music of their native son.
"My new friends in Northern Ireland were thrilled that the Buffalo audience would be listening to their most important composer," Falletta says. "They can't wait to hear what our audience thinks about the work."
Oct. 6,8 p.m.; and Oct. 7, 2:30 p.m.: Pianist Joyce Yang returns to play Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. Born in South Korea in 1986, Yang has made dramatic appearances here. At the BPO, she stepped in after a last-minute cancellation by Lang Lang. On the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series, she filled in at the eleventh hour for Andre Watts, and made another splash.
The "Emperor" Concerto should prove a great showcase for her skills. The opening fanfare is magnificent, the central slow movement is one of the most tender and beautiful pieces Beethoven ever wrote, and the joyous finale makes you want to stand up and cheer.
Sharing the concert with this masterpiece, in weird proximity, is music of Gershwin: the Suite from "Porgy and Bess" and the overture to "Strike Up the Band." Some of this music is being recorded for Naxos, as part of the Philharmonic's ongoing exploration of the music of Gershwin. Gershwin has become a specialty of the BPO, and it is exciting to feel part of the recording process.
Oct. 11, 7 p.m.: The BPO is offering a new educational series for adults, "Know the Score." The concerts begin earlier than the normal subscription concerts, so you can hear music, listen to one of the BPO's conductors talk about the music, meet the musicians at a post-concert party, and be able to get up for work the next day.
The first "Know the Score" takes you through Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic and ever-popular "Sheherazade," a kaleidoscopic tone poem that showcases the individual skills of many of the BPO musicians, particularly the principal cellist and the concertmaster. Falletta presides over this first learning program, which continues in the spring under the leadership of Paul Ferington and Matthew Kraemer.
Oct. 20, 8 p.m.; and Oct. 21, 2:30 p.m.: A concert creatively titled "Brahms' Blue Heaven" features Hugh Wolff, a guest conductor associated with many famous orchestras, most notably the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He will be conducting Debussy's "Rondes de Printemps," Brahms' Symphony No. 2 and the "Fire and Blood" Concerto by American composer Michael Daugherty, featuring violinist Alexandre Da Costa.
Da Costa, born in Montreal in 1979, is a rising star in the violin world. And the concerto is a curiosity, to say the least. Daugherty wrote it in tribute to Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. He focused particularly in an interlude in Detroit in the 1930s when Rivera was commissioned to paint four large murals representing the city's automobile industry. The last movement is called "Assembly Line" and surrounds the violinist with what the composer's publisher calls metallic factory sounds.
The Symphony No. 2 is considered one of Johannes Brahms' most extroverted works. There is beautiful writing for horns and strings, and warm, luminous melodies. At the same time, there are interludes of sorrow and nostalgia. It has a sense of contrasts - kind of like this season.
The concert begins with Debussy's "Rondes de Printemps," from "Images." The title means "Round Dances of Spring," and it is a delicate paean to the coming of spring that we in Buffalo will understand.
Nov. 2, 10:30 a.m.; and Nov. 3, 8 p.m.: Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko joins in an all-Shostakovich program featuring the Symphony No. 13, "Baba Yar." At first nurtured by the Soviets, Yevtushenko ran afoul of the party when he pointed out, in its poetry, the Soviets' restrictions and lies, and spoke out against the evil legacy of Joseph Stalin. His poem "Baba Yar" dealt with the untruths told regarding the Nazis' extermination of the Jewish population of Kiev. It resonated with Shostakovich, who had his own struggles with the Soviet regime.
Now a Russian teacher who lives in Oklahoma with his fourth wife, Yevtushenko will be present at Kleinhans to read his work and hear the music it inspired. "In many ways this will be our most profound concert of the season," Falletta says. "To have an extraordinary literary genius like Yevgeny Yevtushenko actually read and discuss his powerful work, and to experience those words set by one of the greatest Russian composers of all time - Shostakovich - will be an experience that no one will forget."
Adding beauty to this program, pianist Michael Boriskin plays Shostakovich's gorgeous and rarely heard Piano Concerto No. 2. Its slow movement is serene and heavenly, like the theme from a romantic movie.
Nov. 16, 10:30 a.m.; Nov. 17, 8 p.m.; and Nov. 18, 2:30 p.m.: Yes, this one is a three-fer. "Trombone Times Three" gets that jazzy title from the world premiere of the Triple Trombone Concerto of Eric Ewazen.
Buffalo heard Ewazen's music in 2010, when the eminent percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie joined the BPO for the vivid and likable concerto he had written for her, a concerto on Scottish themes.
He is known, however, for his writing for brass, which adds appeal to this concerto. Performing will be members of the great BPO trombone section: tenor trombonists Timothy Smith and Jonathan Lombardo as well as bass trombonist Jeffrey Dee.
The concert begins with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, the "Classical," a piece that audiences love. Prokofiev called it the "Classical" because in it, he emulates the style of Franz Joseph Haydn, while at the same time giving the music a delightful modern spin.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 features the glorious Allegretto heard in "The King's Speech" as King George VI gives his climactic speech. The symphony was a beloved showpiece throughout the 19th century - George Bernard Shaw had a lot to say about it. It also has a thrilling last movement, in which Beethoven was believed to have been inspired by an Irish reel.
Dec. 1 and 2: Cellist Zuill Bailey is a kind of "it" artist on this year's season. He has a recurring role on the TV series "Oz." He performs frequently as a duo with the celebrated pianist Awadagim Pratt. He is also part of a trio that includes Russian violinist Philippe Quint, a violinist Buffalo audiences have come to love.
Another Buffalo connection is that Bailey plays a 1693 Matteo Gofriller cello that was formerly owned by Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet. Schneider lived in Buffalo in his later years, when the quartet was in residence at the University at Buffalo, and was a beloved presence here.
Bailey is playing the C major Cello Concerto by Franz Josef Haydn, considered one of the top cello concertos. Also on the program is Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony. Its haunting, bittersweet central theme has been heard in a lot of movies, particularly in the 1930s.
The concert opens with the Overture to Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream," including the famous Wedding March. Completing the concert, in wild contrast, are the exotic "Polovtsian Dances," from Alexander Borodin's opera "Prince Igor." They add a lighter note and reflect the season's Russian ambience. You will recognize the melodies, which were used in the musical "Kismet." Among them are "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" and the iconic "Stranger in Paradise." The guest conductor for this concert is Sarah Ioannides. Half Greek and half Scottish, she grew up in England and now is the music director of the El Paso Symphony. This will be her Buffalo debut.
This year, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's Classics season is opening under unusual stars.