Perfect for Memorial Day, this weekend's Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert features stars of varying magnitude. Among them are Marc Webster, a wonderful bass heard in the most recent Holiday Pops concert, and pianist Joseph Mohan, the winner of the "BPO Idol" competition held in 2009 by Marvin Hamlisch.
Mike Randall, the Channel 7 meteorologist and frequent Mark Twain tribute artist, came out to narrate Aaron Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait." It was wonderful, like stepping into Norman Rockwell's America. Speaking of which, they even played "76 Trombones." Was this heaven?
The name of the concert's biggest star was never spoken aloud. It was the late Carmen Dragon, the Capitol Records kingpin and legend of the Hollywood Bowl. Dragon's arrangements, stirring and imaginative, sparkly but not gaudy, add so much life to a concert like this.
Associate Conductor Matthew Kraemer began the concert Friday morning with his take on "America the Beautiful." With the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus going full tilt, the orchestra surging, it was a thrill. Later, we heard Dragon's lovely treatment of "Shenandoah" and his rousing arrangement, with chorus, of "Over There."
The concert was made up of a lot of little pieces, and Kraemer kept it moving at a good pace.
It was fun to see Mohan again. His performance had a twist. He played "Patriotic Medley," which he created and orchestrated himself.
The medley, which embraced "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" and "God Bless America," could be called square, but you have to admire him: Mohan wrote a mini piano concerto, it's certainly enjoyable, it's not boring, and he did a fantastic job of selling it to us. He had that old-fashioned concert pianist swagger, he wore formal tails and he worked in showy cross-handed passages you could see from the back of the hall.
He ended the piece in a wave of glissandi and glory and then leaned back, tails over the bench, in triumph. How cute was that? Mohan is studying at Juilliard right now with the distinguished pianist Seymour Lipkin. It will be fun to see this star earn his stripes. (Sorry, I could not help that.)
Webster began his set with "America, the Dream Goes On." A modern Broadway-style number, it was sung with a microphone, which seemed out of place in the concert. It also made the two Copland "Old American Songs" that followed, sung without amplification, a little hard to adjust to at first.
The songs, though, quickly charmed. They were "The Dodger" -- a campaign song used by our own Grover Cleveland, Webster explained -- and the perennial favorite "Simple Gifts." I wish we could have heard more of these songs. Well, wanting more of something is a nice gripe to have.
Charles Ives' "They Are There" was glorious -- you couldn't catch every word the chorus was singing, but it brimmed with feeling. A powerful but bittersweet "Battle Hymn of the Republic" spotlighted the subtlety and virtuosity of the Philharmonic Chorus.
Glenn Miller's jaunty "American Patrol," which showcased fine jazzy playing by the BPO, was a poignant addition. Miller, who volunteered to lead a band during World War II, was lost when his plane went down over the English Channel in 1944. He is one of the heroes we commemorate.
The concert repeats tonight at 8 p.m.
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Star Spangled Pops concert. Friday morning and at 8 tonight in Kleinhans Music Hall.
Tickets are $25-$72. Call 885-5000.