Following the Buffalo Chamber Players’ “Women’s Work” concert featuring female classical composers (and performers) over at the Albright-Knox on Thursday night, many of the same players were back at their “day job” at Kleinhans Music Hall just 12 hours later for a BPO Classics concert featuring two distaff dynamos – guest conductor Rebecca Miller and Van-Cliburn Competition finalist, pianist Fei-Fei Dong (lead image).
In a play, if there is consistency among the cast, that comes from the director. In a concert, if each work is equally delightful, and here they were, that’s due to the conductor. In a typical evening, one piece will stand out in your memory as “more equal” than the others. But each gem sparkled as much as the bejeweled shoes worn by Rebecca Miller. While you may never get to see the super-star-jet-set conductor Gustavo Dudamel on the podium, after you’ve seen Rebecca Miller, you can save the plane fare to Los Angeles. She has everything he has and something he doesn’t – precision. And damn if the orchestra didn’t respond in kind, particularly the woodwinds.
“Conductor Rebecca Miller has everything jet-setter Gustavo Dudamel has and something he doesn’t – precision.”
Miller, born in California, has spent the bulk of her professional life conducting a wide variety of British orchestras (and British musicians are AMAZING) so a guest conducting gig holds no terrors. And this concert featured three giants of the Romantic 19th century with Classical 18th century sensibilities.
And that “Classical – Romantic” blend was evident in pianist Fei-Fei Dong’s playing of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, which is a half hour of love by Robert Schumann for his beloved wife Clara, the pianist. Fei-Fei had the Classical clarity, each note was distinct, and the scales and arpeggios were pristine. But Fei-Fei’s got a Romantic soul, and she is expert at rubato, that slight bending of time, moving in close, pulling back a little, that is the essence of making love. And that’s what a concerto is, a courtship and a dance between soloist and orchestra.
And the orchestra? Right there. Right there. This was most evident in that, while in many concertos a phrase is introduced by the soloist and then echoed by the orchestra, in the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor, often the woodwinds would introduce a phrase, and then the piano would echo it. That Schumann. He was a clever boy. And those woodwinds! A big shout-out goes to two new kids on the block, Principal Clarinet William Amsel and Principal Oboe Henry Ward, and, she’s not new to the BPO, but she’s got a whole new sound, Christine Lynn Bailey, Principal Flute.
If I have any quibble, it’s that Fei-Fei Dong didn’t allow the audience the satisfaction of fully applauding the orchestra. After one curtain call she went immediately to the piano for a very amusing encore. Hey, we love our BPO and we want to clap, hoot, and holler a little now and then.
Almost as a survey of Romantic music, the concert consisted of three pieces each written about 30 years apart. There was Beethoven, the first major composer to break with the lighter, earlier, more formal classical tradition and then two other Germans whom Beethoven had in his thrall. In fact, the thought of having their symphonic scores compared to Beethoven and potentially found wanting paralyzed both Schumann and his protégé Brahms. Brahms overcame his fear by composing everything BUT symphonies for years and years, along the way giving us the “Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn” which opened the BPO program.
For Schumann, love conquered fear when his wife, the famous 19th century pianist Clara Wieck Schumann, insisted that he write more than music for solo piano. She wrote in her diary: “It would be best if he [Robert] composed for orchestra; his imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano… His compositions are all orchestral in feeling… My highest wish is that he should compose for orchestra—that is his field! May I succeed in bringing him to it!” And she did.
Even though the three works on the program were composed by titans, each piece is accessible and delightful in its own way. For example, the concert-opening so-called “Haydn Variations” by Brahms, according to conductor Rebecca Miller in conversation is really chamber music where individual musicians are called upon to listen carefully to one another and be very nimble.
And the concert-concluding Beethoven Symphony Number 4? According to Miller, even though this work followed his ground-breaking Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” (generally considered to be the watershed that launched the Romantic era) Beethoven deliberately kept it Classical and light, saving his second Romantic salvo for the mighty “dah-dah-dah-DAH!” 5th symphony. And why? Because the patron who sponsored the 4th symphony had heard Beethoven’s 2nd and wanted a work just like that. Hey, composers gotta eat, too.
It would be hard to overstate how satisfying this concert was. But don’t take my word for it. Treat yourself tonight to this impressive event.
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 a “Musically Speaking” event an hour before if you want to learn more about the players or the music as well as free entertainment across the lobby in the Mary Seaton Room.
NEXT WITH THE BPO: THE VERY BEST OF DAVE MASON (co-founder with Steve Winwood of Traffic) with the BPO Friday March 2, at 8:00 p.m. A NIGHT AT THE OSCARS with Principal Pops Conductor John Morris Russell on Saturday, March 3 at 8:00 p.m. and then PETER AND THE WOLF, a “BPO Kids” concert, Sunday March 4 at 2:30 p.m. but get there by 1:30 for many, many children’s activities before the concert.