THE BASICS: “JoAnn’s Classical Christmas” returned on Friday, live after two years, and repeats Saturday, December 11, at 7:30 at Kleinhans Music Hall 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. Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission (full-service bar across the lobby in the Mary Seaton Room).
The BPO writes: “Tonight’s performance of JoAnn’s Classical Christmas (Saturday December 11, 7:30pm) is currently on as scheduled. We are monitoring the weather situation closely. Should anything need to change, all ticket holders will be notified by e-mail and/or phone.”
FULL VACCINATION is now required for all staff, volunteers, performers and audiences at Kleinhans Music Hall. Everyone is masked.
THE SHOW: Kleinhans was all decked out with holiday trimmings – trees, lights, garlands, wreaths galore including three giants on the stage – and the musicians looked festive with their contrasting red and black outfits. Very classy. And when BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta picked up the microphone to tell the Friday morning audience how much she and the musicians had missed not being able to perform last year, the audience responded that obviously we felt the same way. We had been saving up our anticipation and from the performances for the next two hours, you could tell that the orchestra had been waiting for this as well.
Even though a lot of our Christmas traditions come from Germany and Victorian England, when it comes to big sweeping winter works, the Russians are the masters. On the program were four orchestral selections from three composers: Rimsky-Korsakov (The Polonaise from the opera Christmas Eve); Tchaikovsky (two selections from the ballet The Nutcracker); and from Glazunov’s ballet The Seasons we heard “Winter.”
After the orchestra got to show off with exciting music by the guy who wrote Carmen, French composer Bizet (say “bee-ZAY”), it was time to show off some soloists. It started with the big voice of soprano Sirgourney Cook. She sang for President Barack Obama’s 50th Birthday Party, she sang at the Grammy’s Tribute to Aretha Franklin, and her singing is as close to the late, great Jessye Norman as you’re likely to get. Simply put, her rendition of “O Holy Night” alone was worth the price of admission.
Then, out came three members of the BPO – Principal Flute, Christine Bailey Davis along with Flute II, Linda Greene, and the always exciting BPO Concertmaster Nikki Chooi, as soloists in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 4. It’s a popular work, familiar to most who listen to classical music as all six of those concertos are standard repertoire. But as often as I’ve played it on the radio myself or heard it on the radio I felt as if I were hearing it for the first time. Mr. Chooi’s rapid fire violin passages were so astounding that I asked another string player later “Was that all Bach or was Nikki Chooi improvising?” No, it was all Bach. Once again, I was reminded of how much we can miss when we are denied live performances.
And a quick aside. Seated at the harpsichord was Abigail Rockwood, whom we’ve heard before at smaller concerts put on by The Buffalo Chamber Players, a group of mostly BPO musicians founded by BPO violist Janz Castelo. Several years back they solicited donations from their fan base to restore an old harpsichord gathering dust in the basement of Kleinhans. Well, all cleaned up it looked great and sounded great as Ms. Rockwell joined the orchestra for works by Baroque composers Bach and Handel (a selection from Messiah also sung by Ms. Cook).
For the Bach, the orchestra was pared down to a Bach-sized, smaller orchestra, and most of the players on stage were either regulars with The Buffalo Chamber Players or another Buffalo group – the Camerata de Sant’Antonio who, as it happened, performed later Friday evening at St. Louis church. So, if you’re not on their email lists or following them on Facebook, you’re missing out on one of the best aspects of the BPO – their talented musicians out in the community.
And, speaking of community, once again the Marine Corps was represented in the main lobby collecting for “Toys for Tots” (accepting either new, unwrapped toys or cash).
Also in the lobby after the concert, JoAnn Falletta and several musicians were at a table signing the newest BPO CD titled Light in a Time of Darkness on their own “Beau Fleuve” label. The recording features six works chosen for their emotional depth and spirituality. They were digitally recorded, and then streamed during the pandemic lockdown, from late fall 2020 through Spring 2021. These are the audio recordings from those performances of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Ulysses Kay’s Pietà featuring English hornist Anna Mattix, J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 featuring principal viola Caroline Gilbert and associate principal viola Anna Shemetyevah, Wayne Barlow’s The Winter’s Passed, George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, and Haydn’s Symphony No. 44 in E minor, Trauer (German for mourning or sorrow).
Also at the table was the cover artist, BPO Cellist Feng Hew, who has been developing a unique painting style during the shutdown! If you can’t make it to Kleinhans, you can order the CD through the BPO here.
Ms. Cook returned to the stage for a selection from Handel’s Messiah and among other works there was the Evening Prayer from Humperdincks’s opera Hansel and Gretel which brings me to my only three nits to pick with the concert. As good as the orchestra was, it would have been much better with Ms. Cook singing the familiar “When at night I go to sleep / Fourteen angels watch do keep” either in English or in German. If you want to hear the prayer with words, then Renée Fleming (who by the way will be the headliner for the Renée Fleming Returns! Concert on June 11, 2022 at 7:30 pm) sings that in German here.
Also, in hindsight, it might have been better to play the Nutcracker selection “Valse Finale et Apotheosis” before, and not after, the more powerful Act II “Pas de Deux” which produced a huge burst of spontaneous applause. It’s a tough act to follow, even if you’re Tchaikovsky.
And, as thoughtful as it was to project the words for the carol sing on the screen, there were a few moments where the audience reading the projection and the orchestra playing the music were not quite in synch. It was as if Charles Ives had arranged a carol medley.
But those are tiny imperfections that are personal quirks. Ever since the easing of pandemic restrictions, every opening up has been a thrill beyond compare. It began for me last spring at a Buffalo Chamber Players concert restricted to 25 audience members. The first chords were simply magical. Then the BPO came back over the summer with, again, restricted audience sizes while they experimented with how this all could work. Then the first concert of the season, with a larger audience again brought thrills. And now the return of the annual “JoAnn’s Classical Christmas” to a very full, masked-up Kleinhans was perhaps the best yet.
This is a concert literally years in the making, so don’t pass this one up. Oh, and if you don’t see Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” on the program, don’t you fret. They’ve got you covered.
UP NEXT: JOHN MORRIS RUSSEL’S JAZZY HOLIDAY POPS, Friday December 17 at 10:30 am, Saturday December 18 at both 10:30 and 7:30 am, and Sunday December 19 at 2:30 pm.
UP FIRST IN 2022: Guest conductor Teddy Abrams leads the BPO in an evocative musical narration from Anne Frank’s hopes and visions for the future to her sobering final moments, composed by former BPO Music Director, Michael Tilson-Thomas. The other featured work is Antonin Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” with its gorgeous melodies inspired by African-American spirituals and Native American music. That’s Friday, January 14 at 10:30am and Saturday, January 15 at 7:30pm at Kleinhans.
There’s also a free event earlier in that week. It’s a Conversation with Teddy Abrams and BPO cellist Robbie Hausmann (who played a memorial recital at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp). Here’s the blurb on that: “The JCC (Jewish Community Center) in partnership with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Holocaust Resource Center invite you to join world renowned conductor Teddy Abrams and BPO cellist Robbie Hausmann on Wednesday, January 12 at 7pm in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theater at the JCC Benderson Family Building (2640 N Forest Road, Amherst). Abrams and Hausmann will discuss their involvement with the New World Symphony program which includes evocative musical narration from young Anne Frank’s hopes and visions for the future to her sobering final moments. Wednesday, January 12 | 7pm Registration required — contact Katie Wzontek at email@example.com.”