What a great pleasure to realize that such a fine orchestra as the Buffalo Philharmonic and the acoustically wonderful Kleinhans Music Hall are a mere forty-six kilometres and one border check from my door. And, if Sunday’s program is the standard (I haven’t heard the orchestra since the early 80’s) then I shall frequently return.
Music director JoAnn Falletta presented a program that gave me the perfect opportunity to assess three aspects of the current state of music-making: first-desk players as soloists, dynamic range of the whole, and collaborative empathy with a world-class guest artist.
Living so much of my life in Ottawa, I have been spoiled by numerous hearings of Mozart’s Serenata Notturna, which became a signature-piece (along with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony) for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Sunday’s reading, with four heroic first-chair players and a reduced string ensemble, had much to be admired.
Falletta, as she would do throughout the afternoon, set a brisk pace for the opening “Marcia” that, if just a hair more relaxed, would have aided the clarity of ideas and line. Once the initial pitch wanderings were vanquished, concertmaster Charles Haupt led with authority and aplomb. Principal second violin Antoine Lefebvre demonstrated his considerable talent by sailing through the torrent of notes with accuracy and style while Valerie Heywood (principal viola) and Paul Brescani (principal bass) kept the fifths in place and the harmonic structure anchored respectively.
The tutti strings kept up admirably but seemed content to let the room finish their phrases rather than their bows, requiring more left-hand pressure or vibrato (especially when pizzicato). That lack of total commitment by every string player on stage—all of the time—left the collective string tone just short of miraculous.
I also found myself wishing that tympanist Jesse Kregal had selected lighter sticks to compensate for the reduced numbers involved.
As readers know by now, one of my great bug-bears at Main Series concerts is the current trend to start the program with some sort of chatter—either from the stage or over loudspeakers. I fully realize that we need to thank donors and sponsors, but there are many of us who come to a concert to leave all of those “commercial” intrusions in the lobby. We look forward to entering the marvellous world of orchestral genius without any “unmusical” overture. During the dreaded announcements, we are cautioned against recording or photographing the performance, encouraged to turn off our cell-phones and watches and begged to keep our coughs under control. But all of that is as effective as “observe the speed limit warningsrdquo;—human nature cannot be regulated.
And so, despite the earlier plea, the opening bars of Mahler’s F-sharp Major Adagio, delivered in a spell-binding fashion by the viola section, soon had to compete with all manner of beeps and boops from the people around me who needed to know the current time even as they were in another, listening to the last great utterance from the Master of Angst.
Falletta's sincerity and integrity impressed me as she pulled her charges along this vast sonic landscape. With so much going for her as a musician and leader, I hope that she will now be able to relax into the music-making and, literally, stand her ground. Less movement on the podium would solidify the output; more use of the left-hand to shape and mold the sound will pay huge artistic dividends. For, you see, I’m greedy—in search of perfection. This performance was often a nickel short of greatness. Complete unity of thought and motion by everyone on stage would have resulted in far more perfect entries and ideally sustained melodic lines, without which Mahler’s essay becomes just so many beautiful notes.
Nonetheless, special mention must be made of the second violin section, whose members continually and collectively shone far brighter than their colleagues. The accuracy of the horns was most welcome, if a little shy in the distinguished-tone department; the principal trumpet was steady, brilliant and with lungs that would be envied by the Chicago Symphony brass in their glory days.
Then, as the movement wound down to its last gasp, Falletta’s left-hand gesture to the cellos produced a quietly stunning release of this remarkable thread. More, please—it was the highlight of the afternoon.
I feared that the aggressive tempo chosen for the opening “Maestoso” of Brahms’ “symphony-featuring-piano” would lead to a duel with the soloist. However, from André-Michel Schub’s first notes, I realized it was intended and from there an effective case was made for this heady pulse. Schub was an excellent match for the challenges of the solo part and delivered a reading that was near note-perfect. His greatest obstacle came from the instrument which seemed to have seen its better days, yielding a particularly uneven top register and in desperate need of “Doctor Pedal” by the “Rondo.”
There were moments,especially in the last third of the first movement, where the welcome chills from the presence great art came my way. But they had to co-mingle with the disappointment of many ensemble problems between the piano and orchestra. Someone has to lead and, given the sheer decibel level of much of the score, both the orchestra and soloist must rely on the conductor to remain on track. When the recapitulation missed the mark, I was suddenly reminded of a time working with a well-known pianist on the Grieg Concerto. We could never get the opening together until the star’s companion suggested that, since the beat was clear, why not just follow the baton? Et voilà!
Schub produced magical lyricism to burn off the beautifully muted string fog in the “Adagio.” The bassoons followed suit and, despite one wayward slip, proved to be the pride of the woodwinds. Throughout the concert, the basses seemed strangely “un-present,”; I wondered if moving ten feet to their right might improve the balance.
Flying “attacca” into the “Rondo” was new to me (rather than reflecting a moment longer in D Major), but added to the excitement in the winds as they had just seconds to attend to their plumbing. But no harm done and the band played musical tag with Schub’s incredible technique until everyone ran out of notes and the audience cheered its hearty satisfaction. JWR