THE BASICS: Guest conductor David Alan Miller leads the BPO in a 2017 work “Coincident Dances” by Jessie Montgomery, then invites pianist George Li to the Steinway for Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” and, after intermission, gives a most energetic interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. The Friday morning “Coffee Concert” which I attended encores this Saturday, February 5 at Kleinhans Music Hall, located at “3 Symphony Circle” Buffalo, 14201 where Porter Avenue, Richmond Avenue, North Street and Wadsworth meet at a traffic circle. Visit www.bpo.orgor call 716-885-5000. The concert starts at 7:30 p.m.
THE CONCERT: Picking up a handheld mic, David Alan Miller, Music Director of the Albany Symphony since 1992, welcomed the small but intrepid audience who made it down to Kleinhans Music Hall. He then referred to Buffalo as “The Paris of the Midwest.” Why? Because he had just experienced the excellence of the croissants, the best he’s had since he was in Paris, he said, at Butter Block (open Thursday-Sunday 8am to 2pm at 426 Rhode Island Street in the “Five Points” area of Buffalo, NY 14213. Call 716-424-0027 or visit here. And you can read more about this local oasis of culture in Buffalo Rising here.
But I digress.
The opening work, “Coincident Dances,” was composed by American composer Jessie Montgomery (she just turned 40) who when even younger received multiple awards and grants from the the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based nonprofit that supports young African American and Latino string players. (Note: Every year the BPO invites a Sphinx competition winner to perform with members of the BPO in the Buffalo Public Schools.)
As conductor Miller explained, Montgomery grew up in lower Manhattan and heard a wide, wide variety of music, and so, in a style slightly reminiscent of composer Charles Ives, she brought all those musical sounds together. Personally, I didn’t find her music anywhere near as discordant as Ives’s cacophony. On the contrary, it was very listenable, sounding at times like other works we’ve heard from the BPO including Moncayo’s “Huapango” or Marquez’s “Danzon No. 2” all mixed with a healthy dose of John Adams. It’s a 12-minute work, which you can listen to on YouTube, but here’s David Alan Miller conducting his home orchestra, in Albany, in a two minute sample.
You’ll notice if you watch the clip that Miller likes to have the first violins on his left, which is what we’re used to with the BPO, but then he likes the second violins on his right, who have traded places with the cellos. And the double basses are all the way on our left. So I had a bit of vertigo when it was time to roll out the Steinway grand piano, which, ever since they stopped using the stage elevator has ALWAYS come in from our left, but in this case was wheeled in from the audience’s right. And I was amused that, once in position, the stage hands all bent down and wrapped cording around the piano’s wheels, a Kleinhans custom ever since French Canadian pianist Alain Lefevre played with such passion that the piano started to roll off the stage. And that happened both times he came to Buffalo.
The piano was there so that 26-year-old American pianist George Li could play Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with the cleanest, sparkliest (okay, I just made up that word) performance I’ve ever heard. Most pianists, when playing Rachmaninoff, go for the grand gestures, the big theatrical moves, waving their arms, and pounding the keys, as if they’re saying “Look at me! I’ve got big hands!”
When still a teenager, George was the silver medal winner at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition (about as prestigious a world stage as you can get).
Not Li. He’s got his act together. How together? When still a teenager, George was the silver medal winner at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition (about as prestigious a world stage as you can get) and he has since performed around the world with some of the most prestigious organizations. We in Buffalo are very lucky to have him this weekend and I strongly encourage you who are reading this to shovel out and go hear him.
I know that in every review I talk about things you can hear in a live performance that you’ll just never notice listening at home or, worse, through a pair of earbuds. This again came to me in the middle of the Rachmaninoff, during the so called “18th variation,” a very popular hyper-romantic section, where, for most of it, only the piano is playing. I had always assumed that behind the piano, softly, there were strings. Not so. It’s solo piano. Period. That Rachmaninoff. What a genius he was. Well, I knew he was a genius, but now I have another example.
Then, after intermission, it was time for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. David Miller conducted from memory, without a score in front of him. JoAnn Falletta once told me that she does that occasionally when she wants the most direct contact with the musicians, the most direct eye contact, without the distraction of turning pages. Well, it certainly worked for this performance. Falletta herself refers in the program notes to “David’s boundless, youthful energy.” Miller was quite animated on the podium and as much as he was moving, the music was moving even more (he had earlier told the audience that he was going to be using the fast tempos indicated by Beethoven himself).
The great German composer Richard Wagner, said of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 that it is “the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone.” I have to admit I’ve heard that description before, but it wasn’t until this concert that I understood what Wagner was talking about.
Do go, if you can. Each of the three pieces was a delight.
WHAT’S NEXT: A special program next Thursday, February 10, titled WINTER JOURNEY with a performance by the BPO following a screening of a film inspired by Martin Goldsmith’s book The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany. While Martin is familiar to many as a radio host, Buffalonians may be interested to know that he is the brother of the late Peter Goldsmith, the original Music Director of our own WNED Classical. You can read more about this special event and even see a clip of the film in Buffalo Rising here.
Photo of Jessie Montgomery by Jiyang Chen | Photo of George Li by Paul Marc Mitchell