RECORD KEEPING | Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta: Florent Schmitt, Paul E. Robinson, Musical Toronto

The city of Buffalo is only 100 miles from Toronto, and as I mentioned in a previous article, it has an excellent orchestra with a distinguished history. Its conductors have included such luminaries as William Steinberg, Josef Krips, Lukas Foss, Michael Tilson Thomas, Semyon Bychkov, and the present music director, JoAnn Falletta.  Steinberg and Krips brought authority in the German and Austrian classics, and Foss brought his compositional genius as well as a dedication to the newest developments in contemporary music. Tilson Thomas was a young conducting phenomenon when he went to Buffalo – a protégée of Leonard Bernstein, no less – and reveled in exploring a wide repertoire. Semyon Bychov was exemplary in Russian music – I remember vividly a great performance of the Shostakovich Fifth – and Falletta has shown a great affinity for lesser-known music. It is also noteworthy that, along with Marin Alsop in Baltimore, Falletta is one of the few female conductors of a major orchestra in North America.

Over the years, I have heard many concerts in Buffalo’s Kleinhans Music Hall, and I have rarely been disappointed. I urge Toronto music-lovers to do the same. The combination of a Buffalo Philharmonic in fine form and Falletta’s imaginative programming makes for satisfying music-making.

Naxos’ ongoing program with the Buffalo Philharmonic has new releases coming at the rate of one or two each year. Among the most important are two discs devoted to the music of Austrian composer Marcel Tyberg (1893-1944), who died in Auschwitz at the age of 51. Tyberg’s music, which was championed by Rafael Kubelik, who performed it often, deserves to be better-known.

This latest Naxos release features little-known music by French composer Florent Schmitt (1870-1958), who studied with Massenet and Fauré and was one of his Maurice Ravel’s closest friends.

Schmitt’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra dates from a 1920 production of the play at the Paris Opéra. What a production that must have been. Can you imagine a production of the play with over one hundred musicians in the pit? Our own Stratford Festival mounts first-class Shakespeare productions year in and year out, but it rarely hires more than half a dozen musicians to play the incidental music. Schmitt’s music is truly symphonic and seethes with emotion, but it surely must have overwhelmed the play. To my ears, the music is not particularly memorable in itself but would have been ideal for silent films of the period.

Schmitt’s Study for “The Haunted Palace”, composed in 1904, is more of the same. In this case, the music was inspired by a poem by Edgar Allan Poe and vividly conveys the fantastical elements of Poe’s conception. Again Schmitt uses a very large orchestra, and his highly chromatic and impassioned music recalls Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande Op. 5 from the same period. Falletta and her performers are totally into the music, and the sound quality is rich and full.

Time to shuffle off to Buffalo? Check out the orchestra’s website at Still to come this season are several well-planned programs, including a pair of concerts combining Novak’s In the Tatra Mountains and Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony (June 4/5). The recently announced 2016-17 season includes concerts honouring the friendship between Canada and the United States, featuring Quebec pianist Alain Lefèvre playing works from both countries. Elsewhere in the season, Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt appears playing Bach concertos, and JoAnn Falletta conducts two Scriabin symphonies.