It is a common practice of American orchestras to open their season with a virtuoso soloist as the big attraction, and to close the season by relying on a choral blockbuster like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Verdi’s Requiem.
Quite uncommon, however, is Music Director JoAnn Falletta’s inspired decision to tap both the virtuoso soloist and vocal blockbuster territories for this weekend’s Buffalo Philharmonic concerts that bring down the curtain on its 2012-13 Classics season. Two additional works never before played by the BPO round out the program. And since all the music is by Italian composers, the concerts carry the banner “Tutti Italiani.”
Adding a touch of unexpected drama is the fact that violinist Rachel Lee was called in on short notice to play Paganini’s fiendishly difficult 1816 Violin Concerto No. 1, replacing the ailing Chloe Hanslip. Paganini’s concertos were written primarily to display his own virtuosity, so spectacular that many felt he must have made a pact with the devil in order to play at that technical level.
Lee seemed not the least intimidated by the music’s demands. She coped with the music’s acrobatic turns and leaps with immaculate precision, but amid all the violin fireworks she also played, where possible, with expressive phrasing and warmth of tone. This was especially apparent in the slow movement that she turned into a welcome oasis of Italianate lyricism. The cadenza was very impressive, but almost repetitive in light of the virtuosic overall character of the violin part. In the racehorse Finale, Lee’s execution of the bouncing spiccato passages was truly dazzling. Paganini’s orchestral writing is rather vacuous, but Falletta kept it as a quiet partner to the violin, using the frequent accented chords as appropriate punctuation to the lyric lines. The audience gave Lee a well-deserved standing ovation.
The concert opened with the BPO premiere of the Overture to Monteverdi’s 1607 opera “Orfeo,” a brief trumpet-and-drum-driven piece of festive and ceremonial character that was quite avant-garde 400 years ago. It was also deftly prescient of the operatic spectacular that would close the concert.
Between them, however, was another BPO premiere, Ildebrando Pizzetti’s 1929 tone poem “Rondo veneziano.” It’s a lusciously orchestrated, rampantly melodious piece, rife with imaginative orchestral detail that blends strings, winds and brass into glorious tutti climaxes and more reflective liquid reflections. The performance under Falletta’s baton was absolutely resplendent. We are indebted to her for introducing Pizzetti to the Buffalo audience.
If the devil was suggested by Paganini’s violin prowess, he was on the stage in person during Boito’s “Prologue in Heaven” from his 1876 operatic masterpiece “Mefistofele,” a setting of the Faust legend. Against tumultuous fanfares, metallic rolling thunderclaps, and brazenly declamatory antiphonal brass proclamations from the balcony, bass Kevin Maynor was Mefistofele, stealthily stalking his way across the stage while flourishing a scarlet cape and taunting God with the great “Ave Signor” chorus and aria.
The details of the wager that Mefistofele can seduce the vain Faust are carried by Maynor in a rich, dramatic voice that needed more robust depth, abetted by choruses of Spirits, Cherubim and Penitents. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Immaculata Academy Vox Caeciliae share the taxing choral parts superbly, bringing the concert and the BPO season to a thrilling close.
The concert will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. today, and should not be missed.