BPO delivers a masterful performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, Buffalo News

If ever there were a case to be made for live music, as opposed to listening to recordings in your living room, Saturday provided it.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival kicked off in the most dramatic way imaginable. Some ushers said the house was sold out. Others questioned that. But there was no denying that Kleinhans Music Hall was packed. The crowd included celebrities. Bishop Richard Malone was sighted, along with a few cultured-looking Polish priests. Channel 4’s Jacquie Walker was there with her husband, Mike Beato. Also spotted was Phil Rumore, president of the teachers’ union, and a Common Council member or two.

The crowd also included a generous proportion of younger listeners. You just had the sense, settling in as the lights went down, that this was where it was at. This was the hottest ticket in town.

In such an atmosphere, the “Ode to Joy” had special relevance. What joy it was to be packed in with thousands of other people, everyone absorbing, in complete silence, this marvelous symphony.

And it was marvelous.

The evening worked. JoAnn Falletta, the BPO’s music director, conducted a light and luminous performance of the First Symphony, to start. There was the sense that something special was going on, and this sense permeated the piece. Falletta, who conducted the entire concert from memory, filled the First Symphony with confidence and high spirits. There were the sudden explosive bursts that Beethoven loved, and also the witty games he enjoyed.

The woodwinds earned their money throughout the night, and in the first movement of the First Symphony they stood out with chiseled clarity. The slow movement, with a measured tempo and theme that reflected Haydn, was tender and lovely. The Scherzo, taken at a good clip, was bright and crisp. Here is where you heard Beethoven’s humor – the witty waffling between major and minor, up and down, back and forth.

The last movement was a delight, tight and explosive. The breathless rustling of the strings was a pleasure that made you want to laugh out loud. Our guest concertmaster for the Beethoven Festival is Gabriel Lefkowitz, a Juilliard grad who is currently concertmaster of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in Knoxville, Tenn.

The Ninth Symphony began, as it should, in a haze of anticipation. Falletta took her time, waiting until everything was just so before giving the downbeat.

Beethoven would love the acoustics of Kleinhans. They magnified all his special effects – the jolting boom of the timpani, the softly shaped notes of the woodwinds. In the Scherzo, the timpani was particularly thrilling. The muffled booms seemed to jump out at you. The horns and clarinet contrasted with the galloping strings. The listener really felt Beethoven’s ingenuity.

After the Scherzo, someone high in the balcony made some kind of noise – a whoop of appreciation, I think it was, and it sent a ripple of laughter through the crowd. As the soloists made their entrance, the hall kind of stretched and relaxed. People turned to smile at each other, and then hunkered down for the Adagio. It was a great live-music moment.

Last week, Falletta told The News about her love for this Adagio, and it showed in how she handled it, with reverence. The musicians of the orchestra also gave it their all, playing with tremendous feeling. The shifting colors were such that you wanted to freeze time.

The last movement packed all the heat one could have hoped for. The cellos stated the “Ode to Joy” theme with a straightforward poetry. This was another live-music thrill, not only hearing but seeing the theme being passed around from one section to another.

Bass-baritone Kevin Deas had the tremendous task of introducing the “Ode to Joy,” one of the most demanding tasks for any singer, because that moment is so arresting. He has a good strong voice and an impressive range, as well as a good presence.

The other soloists – soprano Sari Gruber, mezzo soprano Ann McMahon Quintero and the excellent tenor Robert Breault – also sang with conviction and competence. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus – huge, spanning a gigantic area behind the orchestra – seemed on top of the music. The group packed real power.

You could not beat the conclusion of the symphony in a live setting. There is nothing like seeing the orchestra going full tilt, the chorus blasting, and Falletta with her arms wide and her head thrown back.

In the final moments she went airborne, hopping up off the podium, I think without realizing it. The crowd leaped as one, cheering. Outside a few minutes later, you could still hear the applause.

The concert repeats Sunday at 2:30 p.m.