Michael Ludwig, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s former concertmaster, is back in town this weekend. He is performing the soaring violin concerto of Jean Sibelius, and Saturday’s crowd in Kleinhans Music Hall gave him a big Buffalo hand, in addition to a protracted standing ovation.
We are proud of our own here in Buffalo. As far as Ludwig leaving, it’s easy to understand his wish to pursue a solo career. It’s now or never. He is a superb violinist. Saturday’s performance was just the latest in an outstanding series of Ludwig solo turns on the Kleinhans stage. Whatever is in store for him in the future, Buffalo has had a hand in it.
Ludwig’s performance was at the heart of a richly romantic concert conducted by BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta. The first half is all Sibelius. Setting the stage for the lush concerto are two tone poems, the brief “The Bard” and the longer and leisurely “The Swan of Tuonela.”
“The Swan of Tuonela” features Anna Mattix, the BPO’s English horn player. It was a pleasure to see Mattix in the spotlight, and to bask in the unique sound of the English horn. It is an oddly haunting instrument. Wagner used it famously in “Tristan and Isolde.” Mattix gave it an aura of glamour.
Ten minutes long, “The Swan of Tuonela” was technically not much longer than the “The Bard,” although it felt longer, in a good way. It is unhurried music designed to draw you into a land of enchantment, and the English horn signifies the swan. The instrument sounded delicate but strong. Mattix has confident stage presence and it was a marvel to watch her sustain long notes and phrases.
The transparent sound of Kleinhans plays up the subtleties of this meditative music. You feel the silences, and the swan’s mournful song seemed at times suspended in the air. The quizzical piece came to a peaceful, beautiful close.
It was kind of poignant to see Ludwig walk out from the wings, violin in hand, as we saw him do hundreds of times as concertmaster. Unlike a lot of virtuosi, he doesn’t project any ego. In simple dark clothes, he looked casual next to the BPO musicians, in their black tie and tails.
In a way, his modest demeanor adds to the excitement. He stands there shifting from foot to foot, eyes cast down, violin under his chin – and then he lifts that bow, and he is completely in command. Saturday’s performance left nothing to be desired. He owned that concerto. He had it down pat and played it with a lot of feeling, but as if it gave him no technical trouble at all. His articulation was spot on.
The slow movement of this concerto, so full of longing, is always a highlight. Ludwig, Falletta and the orchestra all gave it richness and room. Throughout the entire concerto there were enthralling contrasts – the boom of the timpani against whistly high notes on the violin, a wave of warmth followed by a breath of silence. The last movement, with its galloping rhythms, was a thrill.
With Ludwig gone, the orchestra has been welcoming a series of guest concertmasters. This weekend’s competent concertmaster is Dennis Kim. He projected a nice, positive energy.
The concert ended with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony. It worked well as a chaser to the Sibelius. Mendelssohn’s orchestration is so transparent and Mozartean, and to hear it live, as opposed to on your CD player, gives it a new brightness. I never get over the scherzo movement, when Mendelssohn gives you the sound of the bagpipes. First the woodwinds have the tune. John Fullam, the principal clarinetist, gave it a lovely Scottish lilt. Then it’s picked up by other sections, and when it gets to the brass, it’s dazzling.
Mendelssohn was such a master of melody, up there with Mozart and Schubert. The strings gave the music passion and the details were nicely finessed. The Allegro that followed was as vivacious as Mendelssohn must have intended. Falletta has the kind of light and athletic presence on the podium to give this piece just the right mood. Several times it looked almost as if she were dancing.