John Morris Russell, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal pops conductor, is still pretty new here. But already, a few truths are emerging.
If you don’t think you’ll like the concert, you will.
If you’re psyched for the concert and know you will love it, it will be even better than you anticipate.
Finally, it’s a good bet that Russell will send you out smiling.
“Wasn’t it marvelous?” I overheard after Friday’s coffee concert.
“I loved every minute of it.”
Russell’s current visit centers on the music of John Denver. The featured vocalist, and mastermind of the show, is a singer and guitarist named Jim Curry. He is as like John Denver as can be imagined. He sounds like him, with his strong clear voice. And he looks like him, with his retro vest and hilarious mop of blond hair.
His wife is even named Annie. He sang “Annie’s Song” to her at their wedding. Really, it’s almost too much. You can easily pretend that tragic plane crash never happened, and John Denver is still among us.
Curry’s wife plays and sings with him, and she’s excellent. She sings the Olivia Newton John part in “Fly Away,” and the Emmylou Harris part in “Wild Montana Skies.” The band is tight and has the perfect unprepossessing hippie look. And just to put things over the top, songs are all accompanied by video of lovely American landscapes.
Russell presides over it all. He hardly says 10 words, and there are entire segments when the orchestra doesn’t play a note. But he adds his own warmth. He is always involved, always beaming and enjoying.
Musically, the concert has integrity. Though the orchestra was naturally underutilized – this is simple music – the arrangements were the originals that John Denver used. Denver’s arranger, Lee Holdridge, helped Curry design the show.
One song was particularly moving – “Matthew,” which John Denver wrote about his love for family, farming and a beloved uncle who died at 21. The video shown was the same one Denver would show as he sang the song.
All the videos were soaring and, in the midst of this roiling election season, touchingly pro-America. Eagles were a constant. In “Eagles and Horses,” the eagles were joined by beautiful footage of horses. “Sweet Surrender” showed us athletic, happy millennials embracing the sun and the wind. “Shanghai Breezes” brought misty vistas of China. To the nostalgic tones of “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” the video explored the John Denver Sanctuary, an idyllic park near Aspen, Colo.
Eastman School of Music tenor Matthew Valverde, in a cameo appearance, joined Curry in “Perhaps Love.” This was a nod to “Great Voices Sing John Denver,” a CD that came out a few years ago. On that disc, this song was sung by Placido Domingo. Valverde, a confident performer, gave the song elegance and sheen. It sounded like Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The tribute was admirably comprehensive, covering Denver’s whole career. Still, everyone will inevitably have some treasured song you didn’t get to hear. Mine was “Today.” At Sacred Heart Academy in the late 1970s, it was practically our school song. After the standing ovation ended I was still sitting there, hoping against hope Curry would come out to sing “Today.” Alas, he did not. Well, there’s always tomorrow.