With the same passion one might have felt at a Bernie Sanders rally, a younger, newer audience responded viscerally to the 83-year-old visiting Polish maestro, Krzysztof Penderecki [say “SHISH-toff pen-dur-ETS-kee”] who conducted the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. at Kleinhans. The concert repeated earlier today at 2:30 p.m. (with a pre-concert talk on stage at 1:30 p.m.). In addition to two of his favorite works (Beethoven’s overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus” and, after intermission, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7), Penderecki conducted his own concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra, featuring two very popular BPO musicians – Dennis Kim, violin, and Roman Mekinulov, cello.
The “Concerto Doppio for Violin and Cello” by Penderecki is typical of his more recent work. While technically “atonal” (meaning that you won’t leave the hall whistling a catchy melody) that kind of music, developed over the past 100 years, is heard frequently in movie scores and television shows where “edgy” is the mood. (In fact, Penderecki’s music can be heard in two famous movies, “The Shining” and “The Exorcist.”) Call it edgy, or modern, or atonal, or challenging – everyone in the audience, young and old alike, went coo coo for the concerto.
Penderecki is a master at blending sounds. I like to sit in the balcony because it’s fun to try to see who is playing what, but here I couldn’t always tell. I was gratified when a professional musician from another orchestra told me that he, too, couldn’t tell where exactly many of the sounds were coming from and the orchestra makeup was slightly unusual with wonderful solos from some of the “stranger” instruments. One regular patron called it (with affection) “a pawn shop orchestra.”
There was a celeste (the tinkly instrument in “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in The Nutcracker) and four percussionists plus tympani. There were wonderful solos for some of the quirky, back of the pawn shop, instruments – the bass clarinet and the English horn. While there was only one flute (not the usual two) there was a piccolo. While there were only two trombones (not three) one was the bass trombone which, with the tuba (and probably also the contra bassoon) created a low, LOW grumble that was different.
But what shimmered and delighted the audience was the interplay and handoffs from cello to violin to orchestra, back and forth, swirling, now here, now there, now very, very high, now really, really low. And, best of all, while this was a first for the musicians, it wasn’t for the composer/conductor Penderecki, who knew exactly what he wanted from the orchestra.
After numerous curtain calls with the rest of the orchestra not just waving their bows but actually clapping along with the audience (that doesn’t happen all that often),
Dennis Kim and Roman Mekinulov played a beloved encore, the “Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia” as arranged for violin and cello. It was the perfect choice. It kept the high intensity of the concerto while combining something old (Handel’s Passacaglia) with something new (20th century Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen’s arrangement). And, like the Penderecki concerto, it was originally composed for violin and viola, not cello.
At intermission, a season subscriber to the BPO Classics Series and I were at a loss to explain the size and enthusiasm of the audience for a figure who, while venerated in “classical” music circles, is not all that well known to the public. And this was not just a “one off” event. On Thursday night at the Albright Knox Art Gallery, a group of BPO musicians known as “The Buffalo Chamber Players” put on an evening of three works to a larger crowd than has ever been seen at one of their events. And they played what might be called “challenging” (the exact opposite of “easy listening”) works. What gives? Perhaps a combination of factors was involved. Certainly, his extended stay in Buffalo, and widespread coverage in the press, radio, and television helped. And, perhaps a few of the “Polish Community” (as it’s called) came over to the West Side of Buffalo to support their countryman. Without a doubt, many of the younger people were there for Dennis Kim, including his many fans in the Greater Toronto Area. Roman Mekinulov, like Dennis Kim, is a larger than life character, very engaging, and very recognizable, who has spent years working with younger performers, and that helped get the crowd going.
And there’s what I call the “Bernie Sanders” effect which I describe as a response to a much older person who is obviously “still in the game” and not just talking the talk, but walking the walk, living a life dedicated to a single vision. In an age of marketing-focus-group-controlled pabulum, something that is quirky, authentic, and the bona fide “real deal” can get to our hearts, young and old.
If there were any thoughts of “Well, sure, Penderecki can conduct his own music, but what about other works?” those was blown out of the water by one of the greatest performances of Antonin Dvorak’s 7th Symphony ever. Throughout the history of Europe both the Poles and the Bohemians (Czechs) have been bullied by other countries, have had their borders redrawn countless times, have had their citizens awaken only to stare down gun barrels of invading armies. So I think that there is a spiritual bond between the two nationalities. Certainly, Penderecki “gets” Dvorak. His conducting style is unusual, but somehow he communicated to the BPO, and they responded. And so did we.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (e.g. you are the parent of someone who is performing), give this concert a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the performance is pretty far off base, or the music itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to hear live music, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good music making. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the performance and the music are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!