Towering Strauss ends BPO season, Mary Kunz Goldman, Buffalo News

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is ending this season with a blast of triumphant, Romantic music. The final Classics concert features Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony,” a work that, because of its scope and intense demands, is heard only rarely.

It’s a first for the BPO’s Classics series, and to up the ante that much more, the complex music is being accompanied by photographs depicting panoramic views of the Alps as Strauss must have known them. Saturday’s concert drew a very big crowd. You got the sense it was quite the event.

The concert begins with “Sanctuary of the Soul,” a brief piece written as a gift to the BPO by Lackawanna composer Ronald Gardner Jr.

Gardner, born in 1972, has a wonderful sense for rhythm. He gets this breathless riff going in the strings, and everything builds on that. The orchestration had a thin and spare sound and the music had a horizontal feel, like Copland. There is a lovely solo for cello. Roman Mekinulov, the BPO’s principal cellist, did the honors.

The composer intended the piece to create “a unique energy of celebration with the concert listeners,” and it did achieve that. When it was over, Gardner came forward and took a bow, to great audience acclaim. Everyone enjoyed the tremendous good feeling.

Vitezslav Novak’s “In the Tatra Mountains,” which came next, was enchanting. The BPO has explored Novak’s music in the recent past, and anyone lucky enough to have heard any of it before knows what to expect: great, rich Romanticism. Novak knew how to use the orchestra and he filled this piece with great effects: declamatory passages in the brass, hearty thundering with the brass and the timpani, and soaring strings – sometimes all together. In contrast to that bombast, there were miniature, charming touches, including arresting silences and a violin solo with caressing melodies, played by Dennis Kim, our new concertmaster. The piece also spotlighted the virtuosity of Valerie Heywood, principal violist. The music is full of detail, and the orchestra rose to the challenge.

It was inspiring to choose that piece to set the stage for the Strauss. Both are mountainous works, with mountain themes. And yet they are not very alike.

The Strauss is thrillingly overblown, calling for a wind machine, extra horns and a sort of super-sized oboe called a heckelphone. The music doesn’t really need a complicated introduction. Just sit back and absorb it all, would be my suggestion.

It’s exciting, being present for this performance. Not only is it a Classics series premier, but the music is accompanied by those photographs, splashed on a big screen. Falletta and the orchestra deserve praise for making it all work. The photos went smoothly with the music. From the opening shots of the pre-dawn moon to the closing vistas of sunset and ultimate darkness, it all fit together with a stunning kind of choreography.

All the same, I had conflicting feelings about it. However pretty the pictures, they couldn’t match the music, which can by dizzying in its grandeur.

Music plays on your imagination, and Strauss was the master of portraying in music what cannot be seen. While there were witty touches, his bittersweet harmonies and rapturous cascades of sound can’t be equaled by pictures of peaks and rainbows. Maybe he said he was writing about a hike through the Alps but in reality, his music says something greater.

You might just want to lean back your head, close your eyes, forget the pictures and bask in it. The storm scene, with the wind machine (look for it in the percussion section) is more thrilling that way. It goes without saying that the BPO, with its affinity toward this kind of hedonistic sound, pours heart and soul into it. Our orchestra sounds magnificent these days. Enjoy.

The concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Kleinhans Music Hall.