This weekend, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is playing a concert of spacious Romantic music, introduced by a bracing modern piece. The guest artist is Augustin Hadelich, an oddly affecting 28-year-old German violinist.
Hadelich was the soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto, giving the masterpiece a quietly powerful treatment. The concert ends with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7.
To start the program we had “The Chairman Dances,” from John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China.”
This isn’t the first time the BPO has played this piece. It’s not even the second. But “The Chairman Dances,” which imagines Chairman Mao dancing with his wife to the strains of an old gramophone, retains its novelty. As BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta told everyone beforehand, you even get to hear the soft hiss and pop of the vinyl record.
I am not sure I want to imagine Mao, whose face I kept picturing on huge old posters, as a human being. Nor do I feel much sympathy for his wife, described in the program as the mind and spirit of China’s Cultural Revolution. But the music was a kick. The percussion jumped out at you and the orchestra kind of panted. That must have been Mao’s heart beating. At the end, the brushes on the drums gave you the sound of the record. The timpani suggested the needle. It was charming, and fun.
Hadelich was an endearing figure. He stands still, with his toes turned out. He was dressed all in black, but his jacket had a scarlet lining. That should tell you something.
He has a unique approach. I am not sure how to describe it but there is something special about him. He is playing the ex-Kiesewetter Stradivarius, an ancient instrument on loan to him from Buffalo philanthropists Clement and Karen Arrison. The violin is like him – quiet, but with heated undertones.
Throughout the opening tutti, he nodded, tense, absorbing the beat. His tone, when he came in, was steady and sure. Other violinists can take a more flashy approach, but he was fascinating to hear: meticulous without being fussy, with phrases perfectly timed and sculpted. The Adagio, one of the most melting movements in all of music, had a touching simplicity and vulnerability. Speaking of that Adagio, what happened to principal oboist Pierre Roy? I have not seen him recently. The famous opening oboe solo was played by Alison Chung.
Hadelich gave the last movement a bewitching zest, the orchestra with him all the way. A standing ovation – delayed a bit because Hadelich is not the type to sweep an audience to its feet – was rewarded with the famed Paganini Caprice No. 24. It showcased Hadelich’s virtuosity – his wit, his subtlety, his ability to make the violin sing and talk. The pizzicato variation, swift and dazzling, could make you laugh out loud.
The Dvorak may have been a little too close to the Brahms in mood and in sound. It worked the same part of your brain. But the symphony was robust and engaging. The musicians seemed to revel in it. It was a thrill to watch the cellos in the slow movement, digging into the music, giving it richness and nobility. The music never dragged and it built to satisfying fortes.
At the end – the symphony has a great ending – the music seemed to inflate like a big balloon, before ending with a bang. Tremendous showmanship.
The concert repeats today at 2:30 p.m.