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A LITTLE KNIGHT MUSIC at Kleinhans with BPO, Falletta, bagpipes, extra brass, and returning favorite, Kevin Deas.

Huge forces on Saturday night at the first of the two final BPO Classics Concerts this season left a smaller, but wildly appreciative audience, with the feeling we had shared something beyond words, although words such as wonderful, magnificent, glorious, might work. The program, titled after the big, final work of three, BELSHAZZAR’S FEAST, repeats this Sunday (today!) afternoon at 2:30.

In the program notes, BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta wrote: “We always have something a little special for you as we close our season… Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast is a piece where MORE is MORE.” A raft of percussionists, 10 trumpets (four on stage, six arrayed in the audience), and a 120-voice chorus, plus the huge voice of Kevin Deas put this over the top. If you’ve never heard Deas, imagine if Darth Vader had a really beautiful, big singing voice. He is the James Earl Jones of bass-baritones.

In a conversationDeas revealed that this is his thing – singing concert roles such as the guy who peels out “Freude” in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” 9th Symphony, Porgy in Gershwin’s PORGY AND BESS, and Belshazzar in the work you can hear this Sunday afternoon.

And, this is Falletta’s thing, too. Her specialty seems to be music composed around World War I, give or take 30 years each way, often dreamy, impressionistic, atmospheric music and often really BIG music (large orchestra) by the likes of Richard Strauss and Strauss influenced composers. We know that the Naxos recording company goes to Falletta frequently to record music from this era by Griffes, Converse, Schmitt, Novak, or lesser known works by Richard Strauss, himself, just thinking of some of her recent recordings with the BPO.

The story of Belshazzar’s feast is a Jewish folk-tale with the usual message that the monotheistic God of the Jews is superior to all other gods. As the story goes, Belshazzar holds a great drunken feast and swills wine from the sacred vessels that had been looted in the destruction of the Jews’ First Temple in Jerusalem. A hand appears and a finger writes on the wall which Daniel is summoned to explain. Belshazzar has been weighed and found wanting and his days are numbered. Like his “father,” Nebuchadnezzar (“Nabucco” to all you opera fans), Belshazzar is arrogant and does not worship the one true Hebrew God. Unlike Nebucadnezzar, who was only inflicted with temporary insanity until he changed his attitude, Belshazzar is killed in his sleep and his kingdom is divided. Harsh. This story will be familiar to many as it appears in Chapter 5 of The Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible.

If you’re like me, you might be thinking something along the lines of “I don’t know; I’m not big on choruses; it’s probably really long; it’s going to be religious; I know it’s in English but it’s going to be too hard to follow what’s going on…” well, you could say all of that about Handel’s MESSIAH, but who doesn’t love that? Okay, it’s 20th century Walton; it’s not 18th century Handel, but it’s just as good; the chorus is effectively used to tell the story; it’s only 35 minutes long; it’s not in-your-face religious (it’s really just about a super bad dude such as you might encounter in GAME OF THRONES); and they print the words in the program, so that you can follow along if you want to.

Falletta is very comfortable with non-classical repertoire.

And, the first two works on the program, before the intermission, are hands down winners, too, starting with the quirky AN ORKNEY WEDDING WITH SUNRISE by Peter Maxwell Davies (say “Davis”) which describes, without words, a drunken Scottish wedding on the Orkney Isles, ending with a bagpiper welcoming the sun. This was the best take on this piece that I’ve ever heard, and I think I know the three reasons. First, Falletta is very comfortable with non-classical repertoire. Other conductors might try to keep too tight a lid on things, but Falletta lets it all hang out. Second, in the musical story that’s being played, it’s up to the Scottish wedding band’s leader to get these drunken musicians back on the page, and in the BPO that musical part is assigned to their concertmaster, violinist Dennis Kim. Through a combination of musical skill, personal energy, and some sort of je-ne-sais-quoi, Kim is, in real life, that leader. We actually believe that things in this concert piece have gone awry because Falletta allows it to happen and then we actually believe that Kim, through his violin, actually pulls it back from the brink of total wedding disaster.

And the third element is bagpiper Alec Cheney. Perhaps it’s my Scottish ancestry (my full name, similar to the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, is Peter Maxwell Hall) but I little patience for anything less than good piping. If you’ve never heard Alec Cheney, you haven’t heard good piping. What a moment when he marches down the aisle.

Edward Elgar was once described as “the English (Richard) Strauss” and so if you didn’t look at the program, you might believe the second piece on the program was German and not English. Remember, Strauss is sort of the poster boy for the music Falletta was born to conduct, and this Elgar just flows. Also, pay attention to the viola solo. The BPO is trying out a new section leader and this young fellow rocks it.

It’s a curious thing that here in the U.S. we have the Kennedy Center honors, but in England when they want to honor an artist, that person is “knighted” and becomes a member of the ‘Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.’

It’s a curious thing that here in the U.S. we have the Kennedy Center honors, but in England when they want to honor an artist, that person is “knighted” and becomes a member of the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.” And that’s why our three composers are all “Sirs” as in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, CH CBE; Sir Edward Elgar, OM GCVO; and Sir William Walton, OM. (And, if you were wondering, so is Sir Paul McCartney, MBE).

If driving to Kleinhans this Sunday, June 04, 2017, note that the Pride Parade steps off at noon at Elmwood Avenue & Forest Avenue and ends at Elmwood Avenue & Allen Street and also that the Greek Festival takes place at Delaware and Utica. However, if your pride is a bit dampened by the predicted rain this Sunday afternoon and dolmas and spanakopita are just Greek to you, then you might want to experience this all-British indoor concert for yourself.

Lead image: Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus

*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!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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