Think it’s a mistake to pair Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 with songs from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”?
It ain’t necessarily so.
This weekend’s concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus is a dandy. We’ve got a majestic Metropolitan Opera diva, Angela Brown. She is paired with the fine baritone Kevin Deas. Buffalo heard Deas last year, in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, when he rose to the Herculean challenge of introducing the “Ode to Joy.” And on the podium is guest conductor Carl St. Clair, a live wire from the word go. A lithe, restless figure, St. Clair crackles like lightning. He filled his unorthodox program with passion, immediacy and humor.
I was so charmed that I began to see sense in the juxtaposition. Brahms fans would admire the Gershwin, with its operatic virtuosity. And folks there solely for the Gershwin, obliged to sit through the Brahms, would have to enjoy it.
A lot of people at Friday morning’s Coffee Concert were clearly there for the Gershwin and new to the Brahms. You could tell by the applause between movements. I never mind this applause. What an experience it must be to hear this magical music for the first time. St. Clair did not mind it, either. He even turned and bowed once to acknowledge it.
He did a fine job of presenting the music, both to newcomers and seasoned fans.
With his Lisztian long hair and dramatic gestures, St. Clair came out of the gate running, and he infused the start of the symphony with a more forceful tone than expected. But as he continued – conducting from memory, it appeared – he rode the waves of the music well, and brought out its soft, luminous qualities.
The orchestra musicians filled the piece with their own emotion, as a group and as individuals. As professionals, they are always involved and alert, but there was something extra here. You heard it in the lavish attention the strings put into the heart-melting Andante, accompanying the woodwinds – and in the woodwinds themselves, so eloquent. In the tender Allegretto, it was breathtaking to observe the cellos and basses crafting that quiet pizzicato pulse.
St. Clair’s fire returned in the concluding Allegro. The journey ended superbly, as he and the orchestra lingered long on the glowing, serene final chord. If you’re new to the BPO, this is why you go – for a moment like this, with nobody breathing, everyone basking in this harmony as you would bask in a sunset.
After intermission, minds cleared, we were ready for something new.
Brown set a haunting tone with her soaring take on “Summertime.” Her voice was rich and powerful. She is the real deal, a diva who has portrayed Aida at the Metropolitan Opera, and it shows.
In a drop-dead red gown, she commanded the stage. She was in character, and gave the music great intensity. You might want to bring a Kleenex: The mournful “My Man’s Gone Now” brimmed with real sorrow. And you will never hear a better rendition of the great love duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Pouring out the song, she and Deas embraced and held hands.
Deas, who has sung this opera many times, matched her perfectly. He was singing the songs of both Porgy and the no-good Sportin’ Life, and he alternated easily between the two characters. The Sportin’ Life songs brought the house down, as baddies’ songs do. A banjo joined in on “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’.”
Deas, enjoying himself, gave the music his own spin. “Jonah, he lived in the wha-a-a-a-le,” he sang, patting his stomach. My one regret was that, at least from the balcony, people could not catch every word. When you’re dealing with lines like “He made his home in/That whale’s abdomen,” you don’t want to miss a syllable.
The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, God love it, became its own character. The singers mimicked Deas to great comic effect, similar to the way choruses do in Gilbert and Sullivan. Deas added to the fun, egging them on. In “A Woman is a Sometime Thing,” Brown joined in the laughter and the shenanigans.
The chorus showed its virtuosity in this music, and also featured a number of impressive soloists. St. Clair never missed a beat, and the show never dragged. It repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday in Kleinhans Music Hall.