Sunday, September 24, 2023

BPO season opens with Russian flair

The BPO, from where I sat.


Former Buffalo News Classical Music Critic

Saturday, JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra kicked off her 25th anniversary season with what promised to be a night to remember.

The music was all Russian, all popular. On the program was Moussorgky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," in the Ravel orchestration. Star violinist Gil Shaham was playing the Tchaikovsky concerto.

The crowd was big, almost a full house. They loved what they heard. That Tchaikovsky!

You will never hear this concerto sound better. 

Listening to Shaham play and dance his way through the piece, I could not stop smiling. I have not been to the BPO for maybe four years now, and this performance made me think of how much I have been missing.

Gil Shaham
Shaham radiates warmth. Even with his gray hair, is is perpetually youthful. He is still the comforting elfin figure I remember from past concerts -- smiling, scampering, full of energy and surprises.

He played the concerto with beauty and feeling, bringing out the tenderness of Tchaikovsky's beautiful melodies. Those whispery low passages. Those high notes! My brother George said later: "He could get music out of fishing wire or a string of dental floss." Funny! But true.

Shaham matched Falletta's great sense of timing. And he moves about more than your usual soloist. Sometimes he stamps his feet in time with the music -- thanks to Kleinhans' famous acoustics, you can hear his shoes hitting the floor. Turning this way and that, he sometimes veered perilously close to Falletta. At one point it looked, seriously, as if they were going to collide.

There was real drama. In the last movement, Tchaikovsky gives you that troika melody, so Russian, so contagious. Shaham threw himself into it, bringing out the rhythm, which could make you think of "The Nutcracker." Glancing from my balcony seat into a stairwell, I glimpsed the ushers on the steps, two young ladies, completely absorbed, bobbing their heads in time to the troika. That says a lot. Ushers are a tough crowd. 

Shaham played no encore. I couldn't believe it. People applauded and applauded, and the violinist, beaming, acknowledged the applause happily. However, no encore.

This was a first, as far as I could recall, for a season-opening gala. The soloist always did an encore, always. This time, though, no.

It was not the only unusual thing about the evening. The format was experimental, as opening galas go.

The concert began at 7 p.m., timed to end around 8:30. There was no intermission. Before the concert, a festive crowd was gathered outside, enjoying a reception by the reflecting pool. It was beautiful to see. A gala dinner for donors, which used to take place before the opening concert, had been moved until after the concert.

The timing seemed to give the concert a less formal vibe. With no intermission, there was less chance to see and be seen (and Kleinhans, with its balconies overlooking the main lobby, is an epic place to do that).People want to greet other concertgoers, see who is there, celebrate.

My brother George was the only gentleman I saw wearing a tie.I am guessing, too, that the absence of an intermission also threw off people's sense of timing. After the first movement of the Tchaikovsky, there was a torrent of applause, and listeners began making moves to leave. It's nice to see newcomers -- however having already listened to "Pictures at an Exhibition," and with only a few minutes' break between the pieces, they thought the concert was over. 

Even Shaham seemed to stand less on ceremony. Since long before any of us was born, soloists have emerged dramatically from the wings, as the audience applauds. He did not do that. He just sort of appeared when no one was looking, and the Tchaikovsky concerto began without fanfare. He is a modest sort, and he did launch the piece with tremendous poetry. However I prefer to stand by tradition. We get so little pageantry in life these days. Plus, a formal entrance adds to the showmanship, and helps you settle in for what you are about to hear.

Which, in this case, was wonderful throughout. "Pictures at an Exhibition" made the case for live concerts. Heard on a record, it might not grab you. In person, you can't look away. 

It was a tour de force for the winds and the brass. There were percussion sounds I do not think I have ever heard. The growling trombones, the fluttering flutes, the glitter and pizzazz -- it was like watching a circus parade.

Falletta and the musicians paced it with supreme finesse, saving their thunder. At the end, we got that thunder, with timpani and other percussion going full blast. It felt as if you could hear "The Great Gates of Kiev" in, well, Kiev. No wonder the crowd cheered.

Mary Kunz Goldman was the longtime classical music critic for The Buffalo News, the daily paper of Buffalo, N.Y.



Monday, June 5, 2023

Pomp and Circumstance

Friday morning I was walking in Delaware Park and horsing with my Seek app when all of a sudden I heard this blare of music -- music that could not be ignored.

It was Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.

You know, the famous graduation theme. What a march, when you stop and listen to it, which I did.

It was coming from nearby Nichols School. Nichols School is a few doors from my house and it is the premier august prep school in Buffalo. They were holding graduation in the courtyard. I walked around a bunch of trees and saw a big crowd gathered, many dressed in light colors on this 90 degree day.  I am guessing it was the school band playing the march. 

Then the band took it up a notch, switching to Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 2. Then back again.

I actually got shivers! Good on Nichols.

This is how graduation should be done.

We did not do it that way when I graduated from the, ahem, Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart. Our graduation was at Kleinhans Music Hall and we drifted down the aisles in our white gowns to the tune of Diana Ross singing the theme from "Mahogany." This was in 1979.

Whose bright idea this was, and why the Sacred Heart authorities said yes to it, who knows. Sacred Heart is no school to be sneezed at -- it goes back to 1879. I can tell you the year because we were the 100th graduating class. And to top things off there were exactly 100 girls in our class. How about that? It is like the "Madeleine" books.

However as Miss Clavell would put it, something was just not right.

I do not have the satisfaction of remembering graduating to the theme of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" march. That is just wrong.

The theme from "Mahogany," I literally never heard it before or since that one occasion. It was pretty enough, nothing against that. It was just not an important piece of music. And in retrospect my graduation looks kind of trivial. I was cheated out of a proper graduation.

As the saying goes, paint a Model T any color as long as it's black.

Play any music for graduation as long as it's Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March. 

At the top of this post is a video I love. It is Sir Edward Elgar himself conducting his Pomp and Circumstance March on Nov. 12, 1931 for the opening of the Abbey Road Studios When marches were marches, and knights were knights.

"Good morning, gentlemen. ... Please play this tune as though you have never played it before."


Saturday, May 6, 2023

Mozart and the Chevalier de Saint George

The Internet has caught on to that I love classical music. And so I have happened upon things related to the 18th century musician who had the beautiful name of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint George.

One of these things is the movie preview up above. 

It makes me want to scream.

I do admire the Chevalier as an exemplary man of his age. He was a fencer, a marksman, a violinist, a composer, a dancer, a glamorous figure.

However as the movie preview shows, there is this agenda attached to him, to tear down Mozart, to blame Mozart for various things that never happened. As if history is a zero sum game.

It is said that the Chevalier de Saint-George taught Mozart, that Mozart was his student. That is not true.

In the preview up above, you see Mozart screaming "Who the f--- is that?" after hearing Saint-George play. That never happened.

Also in the movie preview, you notice that the filmmakers have Saint-George playing in a modern 21st century style, nothing like the 18th century. Even without knowing anything about the particulars that would clue you in that this story has more than a touch of fiction.

This is all a shame and does dishonor to the real Chevalier.

He was, by all accounts, a noble figure of his era. He lived an epic life which included royal honors. And he was an accomplished musician. 

If his compositions are not as well known as Mozart's, there is a reason for that, and it is the same reason we hear little of most of the music written by Mozart's contemporaries. They are not the equal of Mozart's. It has nothing to do with race. Mozart was a freak of nature.

Music, furthermore, was not the Cavalier's only goal. Joseph Bologne put time and talent into becoming a champion fencer and marksman, along with mastering other pursuits. All Mozart did was music. Mozart's only teacher was his father -- he grew up living and breathing music. There was no fencing or -- well, Mozart did some target shooting, which was popular in Salzburg, but there is no evidence that he distinguished himself in that sport.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint George, had a difference balance to his life. He had different and more diversified goals. He soared like an eagle and achieved those goals -- and then some, as we say here in Buffalo. He became a kind of Renaissance man. He was a lot of things that Mozart was not.

There is a lot to admire in the Chevalier de Saint George, and as we marvel at his full and trailblazing life, we should never do that at Mozart's expense. Something tells me that the Chevalier would hate that. 

A musician himself, Joseph Bologne knew quality. A gentleman, he valued justice, fairness, and truth. I would love to think that he and Mozart sat down and had a glass of wine as friends. 

I can imagine both these fine gentlemen looking down on us now, shaking their heads.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Octaves of Christmas

New Year's Day this year was the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas. That is a phrase I love, the Octave of Christmas.

I think of the first line of "Joy to the World." That is an octave! Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Handel just goes down that scale. It is an octave.

Also in "The Nutcracker," Tchaikovsky goes down the scale in the great Pas de Deux.

There must be other octaves of Christmas however I will have to think of them.

For now I am thinking of the 1,000-year-old carol we got to sing at church on the occasion of the Octave of Christmas, which was Sunday, New Year's Day.

That is it at the top! In English it is "Of the Father's Love Begotten." In Latin it is "Corde Natus Ex Parentis." That is what we sang.

That melody!

As someone wrote in the comment section of the above video: "Magical song!"

The melody just gets better and better as the song goes on and it has a haunting feel. The words lare beautiful. When I was singing it I thought about that.

"Psallat altitudo caeli, psallite omnes angeli..." My Latin is not great -- my Latin teacher father would be horrified! -- however I believe that says, "Sing heights of heaven, sing all angels..."

Sure enough! I just did Google translate: "Let the height of heaven sing, let all the angels sing."

Someone writes in the comment section:

Created: circa 4th century AD (between 348 and 413). 

Written by: Aurelius Prudentius Clemens

Country of Origin: Roman province of Tarraconensis (modern-day northern Spain).

Everything I know in life I learned from comment sections! This song is older than I thought. Our church song book said it was around 1000.

Who knows. It seems Aurelius Prudentius Clemens was a poet, so perhaps he wrote only the words. The melody likely came later. Aurelius Prudentius was not only a poet, he was a lawyer, and apparently a good one. Also he was the provincial governor for a while. Later in life he renounced the vanities of this world, I am reading, and fasted and became a vegetarian. He wrote his Christian poems during this time of his life.

You know who that reminds me of, Clemens Brentano. Brentano was one of the most famous Romantic poets however he dropped all that and devoted the second half of his life to promoting the Catholic faith. That is a coincidence, another Clemens.

Now that we have covered all this ground, it is time just to listen. The recording above, it seems just to be a husband and wife recording it in an attic. That is also in the comments. I like how the singer just sticks to the melody. I also like how they show the music and the translation.

Here is the schola of St. John Cantius where I virtually attended Christmas Day mass this year.

You feel you can hear all the centuries echoing in this song.

One thousand six hundred years!

Just listen...