Andre Watts is in the house! You could feel the excitement Saturday at Kleinhans Music Hall as the big crowd settled in.
There is nothing like a great virtuoso coming to play a great piano concerto, and that was what we were in for. The seats were full to the rafters. It was fun how the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is beginning this concert with Samuel Barber’s overture to “The School For Scandal.” The breathless, witty music, finely detailed and carried off, set the stage well for the drama to come.
Stagehands brought out the piano. At some concerts, you worry that the soloist is stressed, watching apprehensively as the piano is positioned. Not in this case. As the staffers fastened the piano in place – tellingly, they really did batten down the hatches – you knew, just knew, that Watts was waiting backstage with no dread whatsover.
He emerged, when the moment arrived, with confidence and calm.
Anyone who attended any of Watts’ last few performances knows his approach. Watts is a big man and uses his strength well. He plants himself like a rock on the piano bench, tails tossed behind him. Watching him, you get the impression of a lot of power, all of it coming from within.
The Beethoven Fourth starts out with the piano alone, and Watts played the opening chords with confidence and calm. As the music unfolded, you never had any doubt that he was completely in charge.
Which was not to say he was not engaged. As we revere Beethoven the titan, we sometimes forget how tender his music can be. This is a concerto that is, at times, heart melting. Watts could bring those qualities out. He must have played this concerto hundreds of times, but he took the time to enjoy and communicate the beauty of the individual phrases. The music had real warmth.
The cadenza of the first movement was dazzling. Watts uses sparse pedal. His approach is very classical and crisp. He brought out various voices and played up surprises so I think even newcomers could notice the music’s changing colors. There was a magical moment when, playing triplets as he wound up the cadenza, he glanced at the orchestra, as a signal. Music Director JoAnn Falletta, on the alert, got set. The violinists soundlessly raised their bows. And then, flawlessly, it all came together. This is why you go to live concerts.
The rest of the concerto was just as finely crafted. The slow movement, whose wandering lines have often made me think of a sleepwalker, was delicately delineated by both Watts and the orchestra. It had a trancelike finish, with Watts turning toward us as if in a dream. Some listeners near me actually sighed.
The last movement had muscle and also creativity. Watts brought out inner voices you do not always notice. He gave the music a new sound. What warm, witty music this is. Beethoven plays a lot of games with the music, sending phrases zipping from the piano to the orchestra, and then from section to section. Sometimes I found myself smiling.
Speaking of wit, Watts flicked off the ending with tremendous grace. The crowd responded, not only standing and cheering but shouting “Bravo,” too. Bravo is right.
After intermission came a change of pace, Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra. Funny, although we switched gears, somewhat, the piece had something in common with what had gone before. There were crisp turns of phrase, and lots of arch humor.
It’s abstract, particularly after the Beethoven, but it’s a lot of fun if you stay in the moment. Every instrument, every section gets a chance to shine. Bartok exploits them individually, and he combines instruments creatively so that you think you are hearing some imaginary instrument, one that does not exist. Kids would like this piece, I think, for its occasional humorous rudeness. There are phrases after which you would almost expect the performer to say, “Excuse me.” It was a good time, I think, for everyone. The BPO clearly reveled in tackling this piece, with all the virtuosity it requires.
The concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.