NEW YORK – They were the same musicians we see at Kleinhans Music Hall, but Wednesday at Carnegie Hall, they looked different.
It wasn’t just the green Spring For Music scarves they and the audience wore, in tribute to Carnegie Hall’s Spring For Music Festival.
It was the Adrenaline.
As they took the stage at ornate, lovely Carnegie Hall, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s musicians were pumped like the Bills before a big game. They were primed to tackle the massive Symphony No. 3 by Reinhold Gliere, a work rarely performed because of its outrageous demands.
“Be yourselves,” Music Director JoAnn Falletta had told them that afternoon at rehearsal. “Just go and play. It sounds great.” A Gliere family member, Jennifer Gliere, had also shown up to thank the orchestra.
Now it was time.
Looking around the hall at 7:30 p.m., you saw no empty seats. The three tiers of the beautiful hall were filled, green scarves draped over the railings. Passionate applause greeted the orchestra, and Falletta, when she appeared. Emotion ran high.
Interviewed briefly on stage by WQXR, New York’s venerable classical music station, Falletta described the Gliere symphony as “very mystical.”
“Both pieces are mystical,” she said, alluding also to “Life Without Christmas” by Giya Kancheli, which was to open the concert.
The interviewer asked her what her secret was, how she was able to bring along so many fans. By Wednesday afternoon, Carnegie Hall estimates suggested that the BPO had broken all Spring For Music records for attendance.
Falletta said, “If you have an orchestra more beloved than the BPO, I can’t imagine it.”
After that festive buildup, the sorrowing quiet of “Life Without Christmas” seemed shocking.
Kancheli, in this music, painted a stark picture of the cruelty of the Soviet Union. The music gets under your skin. It is desolate and horrifying.
There is the taped voice of a choirboy. Why taped? I think the reason is that, under Stalin, that sound existed only in the memory.
Kancheli’s memories emerge in fragments, in restless, shifting tonalities, stifled scraps of chant, scant plucked notes on a barely audible piano.
After a short intermission, it was time for fun.
For us, that is. Not for the musicians. By all accounts, the Gliere symphony, which tells the story of the mythical warrior Ilya Muromets, is grueling.
It is also thrilling.
Carnegie Hall is smaller and more vertical than Kleinhans Music Hall, and the music jumped out at you.
Gliere was a brilliant orchestrator, and his gifts rang out vividly.
In the first movement, the brass was clipped and bright. There were sharply sculpted silences and great moments of clamor and high volume.
In the second movement, the ultra-soft mutters and twitters from the strings and the woodwinds showed the orchestra’s consummate virtuosity.
These touches sound so casual but are so challenging. You had a million quick notes, flickering past with hardly a rustle.
Watching the woodwinds’ short breaths, the string players’ constant, short bow strokes, you witnessed this piece’s unreasonable physical requirements.
The musicians’ hard work was worth it, because the effect was magical. You could see a phrase flash like a firefly from one section of the orchestra to another. The whistle monster Ilya Muromets encounters has a screeching call designed to hurt your ears, and it did. Then the shrieks gave way to the rapturous music that paints a picture of the monster’s beautiful daughters. In the close confines of Carnegie, the effect was intoxicating. Gliere gives you almost direct quotes from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” wreathing them in florid forest sounds and bird calls, and at the end you emerge a little drugged.
The merry third movement jumped and sparkled. The end was a highlight – a sparkling chord cut off for an enchanting silence.
It was in the fourth movement, in which Muromets challenges God, that we got the crashing volume, of a height and desperation that I do not remember hearing last weekend at Kleinhans. The hideous clangor when the now-arrogant hero turns to stone was so cataclysmic you could feel it in your stomach.
The timpani boomed terrifyingly. It occurred to me, as I sat there dazzled, that maybe Gliere made the piece fiendishly difficult on purpose. Maybe he wanted the musicians to feel like Muromets, battling something bigger than they are.
The symphony’s regretful ending is not designed to bring people to their feet. The big crowd did rise and applaud the magnificent performance, but slowly, as if coming out of a trance. I think this is a concert people will remember. These two Russian pieces had something in common. Even if you did not remember the melodies, they left you with images that will stick with you – the sorrow of the Kancheli, the dream world of the Gliere.
We’ll remember, too, the triumph of this night.
In Buffalo language, we rocked the house. Just as after a Bills victory, the hometown fans emerged blissful and ready to revel. The attitude of one Buffalonian, Cheryl Lyles, summed it up pretty well. “I don’t even like classical music,” she said, “and I’m here.”