Music Director JoAnn Falletta is conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra this weekend in an all-Shostakovich program, a concert that will be remembered for a long time. It starts with the Piano Concerto No. 2, with the irrepressible Michael Boriskin as soloist. After intermission comes the massive Symphony No. 13, featuring Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov and the men of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus.
The piano concerto is like a diamond – compact, chiseled and sparkling. The massive Symphony No. 13, in contrast, is a big boulder of a piece, based on the poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, most notably “Babi Yar,” about a massacre of Jews that the Nazis carried out and the Soviet regime lied about.
It’s rare to hear this symphony live (the last time the BPO played it was almost 40 years ago). And what hits this performance out of the park is that Yevtushenko is on hand to read his poetry.
Yevtushenko, who is 79, is a thrilling presence. He is a big, tall man, walks elegantly with a cane and gestures vividly with his huge, expressive hands. Though he now lives in Tulsa, Okla., his accent is such that you can understand only about a third of what he says. When he praised our “or-KES-tra” and said Falletta was an “irreesistibly charming conductor,” you had to smile out of pure pleasure.
He declaimed “Babi Yar” partly in Russian and partly in English. What a spirit he has.
And what a spirit this concert has.
This is the first time the BPO has performed that effervescent piano concerto. It’s an amazing little piece, full of syncopated dance rhythms, like Prokofiev ballets, and long lines of octaves zig-zagging this way and that. The middle movement, the Andante, soars like a romantic movie theme, as lovely as Rachmaninoff.
Boriskin and the orchestra’s musicians played with wit and sensitivity. Everyone was crisp and in sync. Boriskin showed tremendous style. He used a score, but he seemed to have internalized the music’s rhythms. His playing, though quiet and controlled, has zip.
At the snap-bang end of the first movement, it actually hurt not to applaud. The Andante sang. The orchestra’s long introduction was muted and haunting.
After the concerto, going into the symphony was like going into a tunnel.
Hearing this music is like going to the Soviet Union. The desolate chimes, the muffled timpani, the sometimes brutal brass. Like Yevtushenko’s poetry, the music gives us not only the drama and tragedy of the country, but the static misery of it. The movement that tells of women standing in long lines to buy food, their pots and pans suggested by rattles from the percussion, created a terrible feeling of gloom.
Svetlov, who appeared in Buffalo earlier this year in Nickel City Opera’s “La Boheme,” has a fine voice and great diction and expressiveness. Like the Irish tenor or the Italian soprano, the Russian bass is a distinctive marvel and he did the tradition proud. He was passionate, he was oddly detached, he was funny and sardonic.
The men of the Philharmonic Chorus, prepared by Roland Martin, also came across well. There are interludes when the chorus has to echo Svetlov in rapid, intense rhythms, and the singers pulled it off.
Falletta paced the piece well so that it built to several horrifying high points, until the symphony’s final notes died out gradually, like a sigh.
The concert, which takes place at Kleinhans Music Hall, repeats tonight at 8.