THE BASICS: Recorded live at Kleinhans with a minimal “test” audience, JoAnn Falletta conducts “20thCentury Titans.” The program includes Wayne Barlow’s “The Winter’s Passed” featuring BPO Principal oboist Henry Ward, Respighi’s Botticelli Triptych (Trittico Botticelliano), featuring the amazing BPO woodwinds, and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium), featuring a dazzling young Canadian violinist, Blake Pouliot, playing a rare Guarneri del Gesu violin on loan to him. The runtime is one hour and seven minutes and features, before each work, spoken introductions to each piece in turn by Falletta, BPO percussionist Mark Hodges, and Pouliot.
For tickets (only $10 and good through May 13) visit here.
THE REVIEW: This violinist, Blake Pouliot, has got the chops. The Bernstein is full of, as he tells us in his intro, “jazzy flavor and very technical rhythms” and so it’s fun to watch a real pro navigate this musical minefield. Of course, he’s aided and abetted by Falletta, who is known and loved world-wide by soloists because she’s so collaborative. And he’s backed up by the BPO, led these days by concertmaster Nikki Chooi, himself a young Canadian violin phenom. This is an energetic work.
And it is VERY percussive. I counted five (5!) percussionists whacking away at all sorts of things that go bump in the night plus a tympanist pounding on the big copper kettle drums.
Most people only know Leonard Bernstein the composer from his musical “West Side Story” and it’s true that the Serenade is full of his signature rhythms and bits of melodies that will remind you sometimes of Tony and Maria and sometimes of the Sharks and the Jets. Just remember that it’s not a musical, it’s a mid-twentieth century piece of classical music. So don’t try to sing along. You’ll just hurt yourself.
I was, I’ll admit, thinking of the song “Somewhere” from West Side Story, as in: “There’s a place for us / A time a place for us… we’re halfway there… Somehow / Someday / Somewhere!” And that somewhere, someday, somehow place is Kleinhans Music Hall. As “Zoom fatigue” is becoming more of a problem, the BPO, like Broadway, is taking steps to get us back into Kleinhans, and this concert, I was told, had a test audience of about 100 people (BPO staff, support personnel, etc.). The experiment went well. Is that good?
Yes. More than you might think. I myself was recently part of a 25 person “test” audience for a concert by BPO players who call themselves the “Buffalo Chamber Players.” The BCP, like the BPO, has been streaming socially distanced monthly musical events and this April tried a “hybrid” of simultaneous live-in-person at Asbury Hall and YouTubing. It was 13 months since they played in front of a live audience. I was there at their final concert in 2020 and at their most recent this year. It was a long wait, but it was oh, so worth it. And I’m here to tell you live is better. A lot better. Hang in there.
The Bernstein piece is in five movements, and it’s supposed to be a musical description of various Greek philosophers talking about love. However, as violinist Pouliot points out, while the word “symposium” sounds very lofty and erudite, like an upper-class college course, a symposium to the Greeks was basically a sophomore frat party, an opportunity for guys to talk a lot and drink even more. In the work, with its lopsided rhythms, you can imagine a lot of grapes were crushed at these events.
And check out that violin. You’ve heard of Stradivarius violins. Even rarer, and more sought after for their balanced tone and rich bass notes, are those made by a Strad contemporary named Guarneri. Pouliot performs on a 1729 Guarneri del Gesù, on generous loan from the Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank as First Laureate of both their 2018 and 2015 Competitions. Here’s a possible analogy. If Strads are Ferraris, Guarneri de Gesùs are Lamborghinis. Not for everyone.
If Strads are Ferraris, Guarneri de Gesùs are Lamborghinis.
There was a slight change from the program as listed on the bpo.org website, and a welcome change, at least for me. Instead of beginning with American composer Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” which we all love but which, let’s be honest, tends to be overprogrammed, we enjoyed American composer Wayne Barlow’s “The Winter’s Passed” and it is every bit as haunting and as achingly beautiful as the Barber. For most of his career Barlow taught at Rochester’s Eastman School. If you don’t know this work for oboe and strings here’s a clip of the Eastman orchestra playing about four minutes of “The Winter’s Passed.”
Our featured soloist is the BPO’s principal oboist, Henry Ward, and while it’s a little weird to see him on stage all alone behind his plexiglass shield, it’s so good when Falletta features BPO woodwind players. Speaking of which, it’s not too late to grab a different $10 concert by the BPO which features Anna Mattix, the BPO’s English hornist. If you think the oboe can be soulful, the English Horn, deeper and duskier, is all that and a bag of chips. That concert called “BPO on Demand: Handel & Mozart”streams through Thursday, April 22.
Let me close with praise for the middle work on the program, an old favorite, Respighi’s “The Botticelli Triptych” inspired by a three panel painting by Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, including “Spring,” the “Adoration of the Magi,” and ending with “The Birth of Venus.” Very lively music featuring the BPO woodwind players who were seated, socially distanced, along the back wall of the Kleinhans stage.
As Principal Percussionist Mark Hodges said in his introduction, they normally operate in a tight bunch so this was a testament to their professionalism, maintaining musical cohesiveness while not enjoying proximity. If you think, as I do, that the wind players are the spice rack of the symphony, adding musical flavors and colors to the strings, then you can appreciate how good it was to have so many on stage. Not a full orchestra… yet… but a step in the right direction.
UP NEXT: The next BPO YouTube concert “Superb Shostakovich” will stream from April 27 to May 27 and will feature the BPO’s principal trumpeter, Alex Jokopii.
IT’S NOT TOO LATE: Again, you have two more days to enjoy BPO concertmaster Nikki Chooi play a Mozart concerto along with Anna Mattix playing a Pietà on her English Horn. That’s available to stream through this Thursday April 22. JoAnn Falletta conducts “Handel & Mozart.”
Lead image – Photo credit: Jeff Fasano Photography