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THE PHILHARMONIC AND A YEAR OF FISCAL UNCERTAINTY

YOU MAY feel you've been beaten to death by this news already, but I'm afraid taking notice, once more, of the fiscal storm that threatens to swamp the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is an obligatory preamble to any wrapup of 1990 activities on Buffalo's serious music scene.

It dominates area cultural news the way Operation Desert Shield currently bulldozes other international news into the background.

And with good reason, because the Philharmonic is the bellwether of the regional musical climate. Aside from creating a virtual vacuum in live symphonic music, failure of the Philharmonic would have profound ramifications, affecting everything from the quality of other live music programming in our churches and smaller concert series to the caliber of the music faculty in our colleges, to the quality of private violin, clarinet or trumpet instruction you can find for your musically thirsty children.

And don't forget that bottom-line consideration. The Philharmonic is a $7 million-plus business. If the Buffalo Widget Co., pumping a similar amount of money into the economy, fell on hard times, what kind of civic effort do you think would be exerted to keep it from going under or moving to the Sun Belt?

We owe the Philharmonic no less, because its economic contributions are substantial, but its cultural contributions are immense. It helps Buffalo to offer business entrepreneurs the kind of positive environment and lifestyle which could help attract many other Buffalo Widget Cos. here.

There's a double irony here, because the Philharmonic seems to be entering its darkest days just as the artistic rapport between its members and Music Director Maximiano Valdes is holding out the promise of a new, higher plateau in orchestral expressiveness.

By unofficial count, the orchestra has programmed Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" at least 10 times since the early 1940s, most recently under Valdes last May.

It was a superbly eloquent, balanced, lyrical yet still dynamic performance, after which one violinist said, "I've been playing the 'Fantastique' for 45 years, but that's the first time we've ever got it exactly right."

By coincidence, I'd been listening to symphonic music for 45 years, and had never heard the "Fantastique" played better, either.

"Definitive" is a risky word to use. But Valdes' "Fantastique" tempts that description. And it's not the first time I'd been moved to consider that accolade.

His way with the problematical Schumann symphonies is extraordinary, and in February he and the orchestra produced a performance of the Symphony No. 3 which clarified the work's sometimes overdense textures and captured the character of the individual movements with uncanny fidelity. It was his second installment in a traversal of the four Schumann symphonies, all of which creates great anticipation for No. 1 ("Spring") upcoming in February-March and No. 4 next season.

Nobody has yet come up with a "definitive" performance of the virtually untameable Beethoven Symphony No. 9 ("Choral"), but in March Valdes directed a performance in which each successive movement seemed to reach a new plateau which led logically to the next movement. For clarity and coherence as a total listening experience, Valdes' Beethoven Ninth was a high-water mark for this listener.

Conductors are always in the limelight, but one of the more difficult tasks for which they frequently don't get recognition is in providing orchestral partnership for guest soloists. Most audience members are paying attention to the visiting star, and in their listening scheme the orchestra is more or less along for the ride.

Valdes has proved exceptionally skilled at making this tenuous partnership a true artistic collaboration. To mention just two examples, earlier this month Valdes and the orchestra were in perfect rhythmic sync and ideal dynamic balance with violinist Cho-Liang Lin in the Tchaikovsky Concerto. And in April when violinist Elmar Oliveira came to town, they responded with superb musical understanding to the different, more orchestra-dominant demands of the underappreciated Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber.

Under guest conductors the BPO reconfirmed what a resilient and responsive ensemble it is, and nowhere better than with Jesse Levine on the podium during the UB North American New Music Festival for the American premiere of Stephen Montague's "From the White Edge of Phrygia." Here is a rhythmically compelling piece of great vision, excitement and suspenseful inexorability, and one which Levine and the BPO put together on one rehearsal. Montague said it was a better performance than one turned in by a crack European orchestra which had 40 hours of rehearsal time. "Phrygia" should be repeated for the Kleinhans audience.

Other distinguished performances under guest maestros included a stunning Prokofiev Symphony No. 6 under Kent Nagano and a double treat, with violinist Wanda Wilkomirska and conductor Gregory Nowak in a glittering Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 1 and a viscerally exciting Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra.

Two pianists gave highly memorable performances under guest conductors, Bella Davidovich in a cosmically poetic Chopin Concerto No. 1 under Julius Rudel, and Garrick Ohlsson joined Semyon Bychkov in an eloquent and finely balanced Rachmaninoff "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini."

Ars Nova Musicians Chamber Orchestra under Marylouise Nanna continues to provide much valuable programming largely unsuitable for the Philharmonic. Its annual Viva Vivaldi series is always a huge hit, the Cabin Fever series offers broader programming, warming February Sundays, and the newly inaugurated Red Jacket Series at Trocaire College seems to provide a very valuable addition to life in South Buffalo.

And after about 15 years of uncertain leadership, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra seems solidly behind its new music director Uriel Segal, with the prospect of consistent programming and superior performance once again making the orchestra worth going out of one's way to hear.

Chamber music

This observer's top 1990 thrill was a surprise, the relatively unheralded Ysaye Quartet's absolutely exquisite performance of Mozart's String Quartet in B-Flat, K458 ("Hunt") on the Buffalo Chamber Music Society series.

The Amherst Saxophone Quartet provided two of the area's top moments. In May it was the local premiere of the remarkably engrossing and idiomatic Quartet by Ida Gotkovsky, and in October a program which was excellent in every respect, with works by Mozart, Foss, Bach, Pascal and others which was a preview of both their Carnegie Hall recital and their new MCA compact Disc.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Octet appeared on the QRS series with an ethereally sweet performance of Brahms' Sextet in G, Op. 36, and rounding out our chamber "bests," toss a bouquet to our own Buried Treasures Ensemble for unearthing the well-structured and expansive 1894 Quintet for piano and winds by Alberic Magnard.

Vocal and choral

The QRS series scored a clean sweep. In February it was soprano Dawn Upshaw, appearing as a guest sharing the piano recital of Richard Goode, an absolutely magnificent collaboration in which Upshaw's mastery of articulation, diction and nuance of lyrical line stood as first among equals. Then in early December it was the 12 male voices of Chanticleer, a flawless ensemble of pure, vibratoless voices singing in seamless homophony or counterpoint.

Instrumental solo

I might have included Eberhard Blum in the vocal category, except that his performance for the North American New Music Festival of Kurt Schwitters' "Ursonate" was really an instrumental work for solo voice. With its gutturals, slurs, pops, clicks and abstract phrases presented by Blum in a mesmerizing display of virtuoso expressiveness, nuance, subtle dynamic shifts and body English, it was absolutely stunning.

Other highlights included Daniel Chorzempa's April dedicatory recital on the Fisk organ in UB's Slee Hall, a daunting exhibition of technique, brilliant programming and trenchant musicianship which I simply cannot imagine being topped in showing off the range of the new organ.

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has taken a lot of abuse from critics for her flamboyant lifestyle, but in her March QRS recital proved, to this critic at least, that musically she is the real McCoy. And in September young clarinetist Sharon Kam came to town on the QRS Rising Stars series and promptly showed that she is a true rising star.

Opera

In the field of regional opera, the most engrossing experience of 1990 was the Canadian Opera Company's production of Berg's sadistic "Wozzeck," where grotesquely oversize sets and Lotfi Mansouri's diabolic direction made Berg's atonal and dissonant score seem an integral part of the unified proceedings and absolutely right for the scenario.

Our own Greater Buffalo Opera Company continued to mature, hitting a new peak with its November production of Puccini's glittering, pulse-quickening "Turandot." Voices were very good, but the big difference was in the conducting of guest Daniel Lipton of Opera Hamilton, who ought to be considered for the post of music director.

And the Chautauqua Opera scored in an unexpected way, with its apprentice performers in the premiere of Richard Wargo's "A Chekhov Trilogy," whose final one-acter, "The Music Shop," is a little comic gem waiting to be discovered.

Contributors' views

Contributing critic Lynna Sedlak feels the Muir String Quartet's November contribution to the annual Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle was an object lesson in how to play Beethoven "just right," while she also feels Thomas Swan and the Westminster Presbyterian Church Choir and orchestra deserve another bow for adventurous programming and fine results in their January performance of the Janacek's exciting "Glagolitic" Mass. Eugene Gaub still feels pianist Aki Takahashi's program of 14 high-level arrangements of Beatles tunes which closed the North American New Music Festival was a great idea, superbly presented.

The year ahead

Mozart died in 1791, which makes 1991 the 200th anniversary of that event. I'm certain that a year from now I'll be weighing dozens of Mozart Memorial Concerts for possible inclusion in The News "Best of 1991" column. But I'm not so sure how many will make it. Here's why.

Mozart was arguably the most prolific musical genius of the ages. But he was also one of the most discriminating and self-critical. There's hardly a superfluous note to be found in any of his scores. Everything is distilled down to essentials. Consequently his music is very "exposed," and the least mistake in intonation, rhythm, attack or even smoothness of lyric line is easily discernible.

Technically, Mozart's music is not all that difficult to play, but it takes a highly skilled artist to raise its performance interpretively above the level of mediocrity. On an interpretive excellence scale of 0 to 100, Mozart performances can sound pretty ho-hum unless they're up in 90 range. Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky can be acceptable at lower levels. Not Mozart.

For those reasons, we'll undoubtedly hear a lot of so-so Mozart next year. Therefore, I'd like to remind would-be presenters and performers that it's not absolutely essential that every performing musician offer a Mozart tribute during 1991. So unless you're pretty sure you can play Mozart in the upper end of that interpretive excellence scale, please do us all a favor and go on to other composers.

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