A quote by Bartok in the program notes for this concert praises Debussy, Beethoven and Bach for significant landmarks in musical development. Even without Debussy, the program sprang from that genesis.
But the "The Miraculous Mandarin Suite" by Bartok offered that periodic confirmation that the Buffalo Philharmonic still can play with the best when the chemistry is right.
The opening passage was the tip-off, its wonderfully scurrying strings and trombone glissandi creating the properly chaotic representation of a city's sleazy bordello district, yet remaining remarkably transparent and clear textured.
The story involves a beautiful prostitute who lures to her room a Chinese Mandarin so transfixed by her beauty that he endures beating, stabbing and hanging by thugs, refusing to die until she takes him in her arms.
Bartok's music is devastatingly effective at scene spinning, superbly colorful and rampantly rhythmic so that the end product is sheer musical excitement.
Maximiano Valdes controlled the tempos, phrasing, rhythmic pointing and dynamics with such care that the story was enhanced at every turn. And the orchestra recreated Bartok's kaleidoscopically changing colors, textures and sonorities with a panache that was stunning.
John Fullam's many clarinet solos were remarkably expressive; the trombones' wide sweeping, suggestive gestures were played superbly; and the entire brass section distinguished itself. It was an edge-of-the-seat performance.
After that, what better than the purity of Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, with a properly reduced orchestra of just 14 strings. I felt both soloist Charles Haupt and the orchestra took a couple of minutes to get some sluggishness worked out. But after that, the rhythms and line of the outer allegro movements were very clearly drawn. The slow movement, however, transfixed the soul. Haupt's long, arching melodic lines sang with a sustained romantic aria quality. A bit of shaping was needed to relieve the orchestra's somewhat plodding realization of its insistent chordal support.
At the end, we once again had the confirmation of genius that comes with each hearing of Beethoven's awesome Symphony No. 5. Valdes and the orchestra kept a fine set of checks and balances on expressing tension then release, yet keeping the music moving at all times.
This performance moved and was really well energized yet never frenetic. The music always made its points without excess, especially in the stentorian major key affirmation of the Finale.
by Maximiano Valdes.
Featuring Concertmaster Charles Haupt in Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1.
Saturday evening in Kleinhans Music Hall; repeated at 2:30 p.m. today.