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BPO and JoAnn Falletta celebrate 20 years together with Buffalo premier of Danny Elfman’s rousing Violin Concerto

With an encore performance yet to come Saturday night, October 19 at 8 p.m. at Kleinhans Music Hall, on Friday morning JoAnn Falletta, after being honored on stage by proclamations from both the City of Buffalo and the County of Erie, proceeded to conduct an intense 40-minute Violin Concerto by Los Angeles born “movie” composer Danny Elfman.

With over 100 film scores to his credit, it’s not the first time Elfman has dived into “classical” music. His Serenada Schizophrana is a symphony which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2005; he wrote a ballet for the American Ballet Theatre (which was choreographed by Twyla Tharp); and he also wrote music for the L.A. based Cirque du Soleil called “Iris” (2011-2013) which is where he met the exciting young violinist Sandy Cameron.

And it was for Ms. Cameron that Elfman wrote his 40-minute, 4 movement Violin Concerto titled “Eleven Eleven.” In a video shown to the audience moments before the concert began, Elfman explains how he and Cameron worked on the music together and when they finally agreed that it was finished, he counted the number of measures, and it came to one-thousand, one hundred, and eleven (1,111) or “eleven eleven.” He adds that since “elf” means “eleven” in German, the title just seemed appropriate.

It is one high-energy piece but Ms. Cameron is one high-energy performer who moves about the stage non-stop as she plays with abandon and even occasionally plays “left-hand pizzicato” while simultaneously bowing with her right. She’s a performer, all right. You can watch her play an arrangement of Elfman’s score to the movie Edward Scissorhands here.

 

If you like Danny Elfman’s movie scores, perhaps the four Oscar nominated ones (“Milk,” “Goodwill Hunting,” “Big Fish,” or “Men in Black”) and definitely some of the darker, more sinister scores such as the previously mentioned “Edward Scissorhands,” or “Batman,” or “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (the infectious rhythm of the song “This is Hallowe’en” was used to good effect in the first movement) then this concerto is for you.

But does it sound like a movie score? No, it is indeed a concerted work for a symphony orchestra and great care is given to the solo violin part to become a virtuoso piece, which is what both violinists and audiences want. Elfman himself has admitted “I am told I have a recognizable style but my greatest pleasure is when I can surprise the audience with my music.”

I would say that folks who don’t usually get over to Kleinhans to the BPO will enjoy this work because it does have enough of the Elfman movie music flavor to make it familiar, despite being a new work. And, there’s the violinist, Sandy Cameron which everyone, audience and musicians (at least the ones I asked) alike found very impressive.

For BPO regulars (classical music mavens) there are a number of touchstones. There were many, many moments that sounded like a number of beloved early 20th century works such as the icy tone of the 1904 Sibelius Violin Concerto or the melodic beauty coupled with frenetic violin demands of the 1939 Barber Violin Concerto or the shimmering sound of the 1945 “Four Sea Interludes” from Britten’s “Peter Grimes” with flashes of another early 20th century British composer, Vaughan-Williams (who was taught orchestration by Ravel).

So, it was music that sounded to me (your mileage may vary) like tonal music composed from 1905 to 1945, in other words, as has been reported here in the past, music that is squarely in Falletta’s wheelhouse. In the program we read that Elfman himself says that he was influenced in general by classical composers Tchaikovsky, Bartok, Stravinsky, and Ravel, and in particular the four-movement Violin Concerto by Shostakovich which you can hear as Dimitri Mitropoulos conducts the New York Philharmonic with violinist David Oistrakh here.

 

BPO regulars will appreciate the slightly larger than usual orchestra featuring seven (7!) percussionists plus tympani, two harps (not the usual one), a celeste, a piccolo trumpet, and at the request of the composer, a re-aligned string section with the first violins to Falletta’s left and the seconds to her right.

So with all that firepower under her baton, Falletta wisely programmed music by Richard Strauss to fill out the concert. As many times as I’ve heard “Death and Transfiguration” on the radio, nothing compares with the live performance, especially since there are so many subtle passages (including the tremolo of the basses) which you just don’t hear on your car speakers or Alexa. For the second Strauss piece – “Salome’s Dance” from the opera – the seven percussionists returned along with the addition of a bass clarinet.

Here’s a tip: Whenever in opera (or any “program music” which tells a story) you hear a bass clarinet, treachery is afoot and someone is about to get stabbed in the back or, if you are John the Baptist, worse.

We live in a wonderful age of music access, with terrestrial radios and internet radios at home and in the car, and music on our televisions, and smartphones, and smart speakers, but at the end of the day, nothing compares with live music in an acoustically superior space such as Kleinhans.

Kleinhans Music Hall is located at “3 Symphony Circle” Buffalo, NY 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 on Saturday starts at 8:00 p.m. but there’s almost always free pre-concert entertainment in the Mary Seaton Room across the lobby starting around 7:00 as well as a “Musically Speaking” event an hour before the concert with JoAnn Falletta on the main stage if you want to learn more about the music she’s about to conduct.

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, 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?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

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 has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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