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Fragrance and color in French music at BPO Bolero! concert at Kleinhans

BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta bounded out on stage, grabbed a microphone, and after wishing everyone a Happy New Year, picked up her baton and conducted four atmospheric pieces by four different late-19th, early 20th century Parisians – Gabriel Fauré, Camille Saint-Saëns, Claude Debussy, and Maurice Ravel. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now. This is the music that Falletta was born to conduct.

I believe that her “tonal center” is right around WWI, give or take 20 years in each direction, and it’s not just French music, and it’s not just my opinion. Just look at her discography in particular composers that the Naxos recording company has contracted the BPO to record, including the just released (Friday January 12) BPO recording of music by the Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly. But there’s the German Richard Strauss, and the Austrian Gustav Mahler, and the French-German Florent Schmitt, and Americans Frederick Shepherd Converse and Thomas Knowles Paine. All in that very late romantic, early 20th century vein.

She gets it, she loves it, and, as she has often said in conversation she loves the way the individual players in the orchestra are called upon to play solos or little combinations of instruments that let them shine. You might now know this about her, but Falletta remembers birthdays, anniversaries, celebrates whenever a musical family has a baby, and is the maestro of thank you notes. Falletta cares about the orchestra and they care about each other.

So, on Friday morning, January 12th at the “coffee concert” (these Friday morning shows always start with free coffee and donuts) she was in her element. As she wrote in the program:

I have always found French music irresistible – its nuance, subtlety, impressionistic color and fragrance, and the Buffalo Philharmonic plays this music with a cool elegance that brings it to life with a sensuous languor. Faure’s landscape of the mysterious fairy tale of Pelléas and Mélisande opens the program, which also explores the French fascination with Spain in Debussy’s astonishing Iberia, and Ravel’s iconic Boléro. It is truly a delight to feature one of our own stars, as our beloved principal cellist Roman Mekinulov takes center stage in the beautiful Saint-Säens concerto.

All of the works were on, by German and Austrian classical music standards, the short side and that made it all the more French, as if we were at a musical café, with a little wine, a little cheese, a little pastry, and to finish a little demitasse of strong coffee.

The Fauré was, as advertised, dreamy and sensuous. And the cello concerto which closed the first half of the program was everything I hoped it would be. Roman Mekinulov, the leader of the cello section, stepped out as soloist. Now, while Mekinulov isn’t my favorite when it comes to high delicate passage work, when you want that big, warm, bear-like roar of the cello, you need a big, warm, bear-like guy like Roman. I would contrast Mekinulov now to the prissy early recordings of Yo-Yo Ma, who could play elegant figures yet abused his intonation to “hide” behind the orchestra. Early Ma recordings lacked soul. Roman has a big Russian soul, and if you give him the right concerto, get back. Aw, don’t even move back. He’s going to hit it out of the park. Just watch the arc of the ball and be happy you were there to see it.

Earlier I mentioned that the members of the orchestra care for each other, and that was nowhere more evident than in the subtle, tiny solos of the woodwinds, as they “backed up” their front-man, Roman, in this Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor. The audience went nuts, and for an encore Mekinulov played the haunting Élégie by Fauré (whose Pelléas et Mélisande had opened the program). At the end, as he drew his bow across the low open string with his right hand, his left (not needed for this note) drifted off into space. He’s got soul, and he’s a showman.

Everyone loves Debussy and his musical description of Spain was a delight. But the high point for me was Ravel’s Boléro. Now I must have heard this work, what, 100 times on the radio. But nothing beats hearing this live. Perhaps you’ve heard Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” Well, the Ravel work is very similar, in that the same haunting melody slowly is passed from one instrument to another, including every member of the clarinet family, and other jazzy instruments including the trombone, trumpet, and tenor sax. Also, and I never would have known this if I hadn’t been at Kleinhans, there is an incredible role for the tympani (those copper bottom kettle drums) and their player, Matthew Bassett, who was clearly grooving on this.

This concert repeats tonight, Saturday, January 13 at 8:00 p.m.

Kleinhans Music Hall is located at “3 Symphony Circle” Buffalo, 14201 where Porter Avenue, Richmond Avenue, North Street and Wadsworth meet at a traffic circle. Visit www.bpo.org or call 716-885-5000. The concert starts at 8:00 p.m. but there’s almost always free entertainment an hour before across the lobby in the Mary Seaton Room.

UP NEXT: A “Know the Score” experience called “Rachmaninoff and his Psychiatrist” Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. at Kleinhans with Stefan Sanders conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra along concert pianist / Clinical Professor of Psychiatrist at the Cornell-Weill Medical College in New York / speaker Dr. Richard Kogan. Dr. Kogan will talk about Rachmaninoff’s writer’s block and deep depression and how his second piano concerto brought him out of that. And then we’ll hear that very popular work.

On Friday, January 19 at 8:00 p.m. Brent Havens conducts the BPO as vocalist Randy Jackson re-creates the music of Jim Morrison and The Doors.

On Saturday, January 20, also at 8:00 p.m. Byron Stripling, trumpeter, conductor, and pretty funny guy recreates the sound of Harlem’s Cotton Club with Carmen Bradford vocalist and Ted Louis Levy, dancer using Jeff Tyzik arrangements of jazz standards (including two by Buffalo’s own Harold Arlen).

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For Classical 94.5 WNED and on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists to get at the answers. That's why he loves writing reviews. A show with a strong message that makes him laugh and cry and think about life is a good show. On “Theater Talk” his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" In every situation he's in Peter wonders: "What's the big picture here?" And, "if I had to teach this, how would I break it down to explain it?"

Heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM "Theater Talk" repeats Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED, the radio station where Peter is currently the producer and host of “Buffalo Philharmonic Live” (Sundays at 5 p.m. repeating Fridays at 10 p.m. on WNED).

Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business. He is currently a member of the "Artie Awards Committee."

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