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Under the marketing banner of “Brahms’ Blue Heaven,” distinguished guest conductor Hugh Wolff has brought to the Buffalo Philharmonic a program that opens with the impressionism of Debussy and concludes with the ravishing romanticism of Brahms.
But in the middle, he and guest violinist Alexandre Da Costa provided a bracing modern treat with the regional premiere of Michael Daugherty’s 2003 “Fire and Blood” Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.
Much of his work springs from pop culture and might be considered a musical parallel to Roy Lichtenstein’s graphics. “Fire and Blood” is different. Daugherty’s concerto is direct and evocative, speaking in a forceful contemporary voice that even conservative ears can easily understand, and is based on the murals of famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera that adorn the Ford plants in the Detroit area.
The first movement, “Volcano,” opens with a strong double-stopped violin assault and develops in jagged, insistent rhythms, with a slower, questioning and indecisive middle section. The music is continually punctuated by slashing orchestral chords, while the fiendishly difficult fast bowing for the soloist carries over into a cadenza of great virtuosity. Here and elsewhere, Da Costa dispatched the assertive violin messages superbly, but in all candor, the incessant repetition of long, violently bowed violin passages became merely frenetic and ultimately boring.
The slow movement, “River Rouge,” is based on two themes, one warm but densely dissonant and the other exotically lonesome and yearning,
With persistent mariachi-like orchestral textures and a lot of dramatic loud-soft contrasts, it makes a truly compelling statement. The Finale, called “Assembly Line,” is of a similar intensity as the “Volcano,” and spins out violin figurations evocative of machinery in constant motion with much timpani underpinning. Strong blocks of heavily accented chromatic orchestral interjection carry the day, but are contrasted with frequent flavoring of cowbells and other metallophones, plus unexpectedly tranquil harp commentary at transition points.
Wolff opened the concert with Debussy’s 1910 “Rondes de Printemps.”
His pinpoint stick technique produced a performance of great openness and clarity of texture in the working out of Debussy’s sequence of themes, snippets and variants. It was a brief but joyous journey through the pleasures of springtime.
I have never associated the color blue with Brahms’ 1877 Symphony No. 2, whose frequent use of horns create more of a golden glow. Wolff gave the first movement a compelling sense of urgency but some sectional balances seemed a bit cloudy. In the second, he balanced a beguiling warmth and repose with more dramatic declarations, and in the Scherzo extracted a lovely lightness and energy. The horns centered the full brass section in the Bacchanalian Finale, bringing the symphony to a glorious close.