You have to be bold to play Carnegie Hall. And the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, playing Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music Festival in May, is thinking very big.
The orchestra has signed up sponsors including the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres.
It is planning big parties including a post-concert reception in the famous Russian Tea Room.
Finally, the BPO has resolved to beat the record held by Toledo, Ohio.
The Toledo Symphony played the Spring for Music Festival in 2011. Not only was the orchestra lavishly praised, but Toledo folks made up the bulk of the audience in Carnegie Hall’s main auditorium, which seats 2,804.
“The Toledo Symphony … stormed Carnegie, with 1,400 Ohio citizens in tow (in an audience of more than 2,000), and its program, dwelling on the plight of the individual in an oppressive society, proved a masterstroke,” reported the New York Times. The Toledo Symphony played music by Shostakovich and Andre Previn.
Susan Schwartz, the BPO’s new marketing director, says the BPO has sold more than 900 tickets so far. But it’s still not enough.
“Toledo brought 1,320 people,” broods Schwartz, who moved here from Cleveland. “We are shooting for 1,350. We just want to beat Toledo. Whether we will or not, I don’t know.”
It’s hard not to feel a little competitive. Toledo’s orchestra has a budget of $6 million, much smaller than Buffalo’s, which is more than $9 million. Its principal conductor is Stefan Sanderling, who, just to thicken the plot, was music director of the Chautauqua Symphony from 2006 until 2011.
Buffalo, though, has a very big secret weapon.
For Spring for Music, Music Director JoAnn Falletta plans to begin with the quiet, ethereal “Morning Prayers” from “Life Without Christmas” by Giya Kancheli – and then bring the house down with the massive Symphony No. 3 of the Russian composer Reinhold Gliere.
As Teddy Roosevelt would put it, speak softly and carry a big symphony. In the arsenal of symphonic music, the Gliere, though expansive and romantic, could be considered Big Bertha. Gliere, who died in 1956, scored it for an enormous orchestra. Because of its length and demands, live performances are rare.
The BPO is drafting extra musicians to perform it, both at Carnegie Hall and in Buffalo beforehand. Some come from right here in town, others from the now-defunct Syracuse Symphony, still others from elsewhere. The orchestra will balloon from about 75 to 100 musicians.
For Falletta, there’s no doubt that it’s worth it.
“It’s a cult piece. There are people who collect recordings, who travel to hear it because it’s rarely done,” she says. In the 1950s, she adds, conductors including Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy performed the symphony with cuts. The BPO will not.
“We’re playing it as Gliere intended,” she declares. “It’s kind of an event in New York that this is happening.”
‘Chancy and risky’
The symphony was the result of serendipity. Before the Spring for Music opportunity appeared, the BPO already had been invited to record Gliere’s behemoth for the Naxos label.
Naxos is trying to put together a comprehensive catalog of music, and Klaus Heymann, the label’s CEO, met with Falletta and suggested the piece.
“He doesn’t have a good version of it, an uncut, wonderful version,” Falletta says. “He wanted us to be the orchestra to do it. It ended up being a great meeting of the minds.”
Heymann has told The News that he considers the BPO a great orchestra for big music. It is no secret that the BPO also loves to explore Russian music. It all added up, and when Falletta approached Spring for Music with the idea, the festival organizers embraced the choice and decreed that the BPO would be part of this year’s lineup, which also includes the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra.
The festival’s aim, as stated on its website, is “to challenge preconceived notions about the classical concert experience and expose new audiences to the music.” While many orchestras accepted for the festival perform contemporary music, the Gliere is enough of a rarity that it, too, fit the bill.
“Someone said in the ’50s, for real music lovers, it was very much on the radar then. It was known, it was played,” Falletta reflects. “That’s when Ormandy and Stokowski were creating cut versions. Later it became less popular to do cut versions of pieces. And not many people had the endurance to play this piece. It just fell out of the general repertoire because of that.”
This is the first time Falletta has tackled the symphony.
“Someone said to me, ‘Isn’t it chancy and risky, taking a piece you’ve never done to Carnegie Hall? Wouldn’t it be better to play something you’ve played before?’ ” she recalls.
“I said, no, it’s supposed to be about stretching our horizons, doing something we normally wouldn’t do. It’s something we do to grow as an orchestra.”
A flier in Russian
The festival pays the BPO a stipend but does not cover travel. Taking an orchestra on the road is costly, which is where corporate sponsorship comes in. All those big instruments, such as cellos and basses, need their own seats. And, as BPO board mainstay Cindy Abbott Letro says, “New York City couldn’t be more expensive.”
Letro was in New York recently checking out the Russian Tea Room. “I just wanted to look at it, to see what it was like,” she says.
In the drive to beat Toledo, she and her colleagues have been brainstorming how to pinpoint potential fans, including UB alumni and Buffalo expats in New York.
Someone had the idea to reach out to Russian communities in New York and Buffalo.
“We sent a flier out. Roman offered to translate it into Russian,” says Letro, referring to Roman Mekinulov, the BPO’s principal cellist, who is from Russia.
“If you think about it, there are a lot of angles.”
Happily, the one aspect of the BPO’s trip which is not big is the ticket price.
Tickets are an egalitarian $25.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The BPO offers travel packages. The more luxurious options, such as the two-night BPO Carnegie Ambassador Tour and the one-night BPO Carnegie VIP tour, include accommodations as well as the party at the Russian Tea Room. (The VIP tour is $1,100 per person, $1,750 per couple.)
Other plans offer more modest amenities. For $900 per couple, On The Road to Carnegie includes round-trip motor coach transportation and two nights at the Hampton Inn in Secaucus, N.J. “With Toledo, they did a lot of bus tours, I think,” Letro says.
Things will work out, she is sure.
“It’s going to be so much fun,” she says. “When Buffalonians all come together, I think they’re going to take it as a challenge, to get as many people there as possible.”
The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra appearing at Spring For Music, Carnegie Hall
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. May 8
WHERE: Carnegie Hall, 881 7th Ave., New York, N.Y. 10019