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SOMETIMES the sun comes out, everything is illuminated for hundreds of miles in every direction, and a golden age begins. If historians are lucky, they can pinpoint the moment.

And then sometimes the dark clouds roll in, never seem to lift, and a dark age begins.

For the Buffalo Philharmonic, we can pinpoint the exact moment when the dark age began: May 14, 1979, when Michael Tilson Thomas' altogether amazing stewardship of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra officially ended with a performance of Mahler's massive Third Symphony for which Buffalo News music critic John Dwyer mournfully noted the existence of one empty seat for every concert attendee.

Ahead for the Philharmonic was the clunking, unadventurous regime of conductor Julius Rudel, by most accounts an entirely agreeable man but a music programmer of little or no adventure and a public personality of notably low kilowattage. Behind it was a magnificent previous history of adventure and ambition that had begun with Lukas Foss' whirlwind entrance on the Buffalo scene and continued with the dominion of Thomas, that Bernstein-in-waiting and pianist/conductor whose sense of New Music adventure far exceeded the charismatic maestro generally thought to be his model.

The disappointing thud that accompanied the transition from Thomas to Rudel ended all hope that the Buffalo Philharmonic would be a cultural organization (or just "cultural," as the government types have it) of progressiveness, ambition and community electricity. Subsequent conductors Semyon Bychkov and Maximiano Valdes deservedly had their passionate partisans inside and outside the orchestra (Bychkov as far away as Europe after the orchestra's tour), but the days when the Buffalo Philharmonic strode hand in hand with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's expansive acquisition period were over.

The years of downsizing and labor unrest began. Until Thursday's announcement that Saturday's opening concert would go on, they were still with us.

So depressing back in 1979 was the thud of some local spirits that dire personal rumors about Thomas' departure routinely surfaced. None of them made a bit of sense when you take into account the most elemental fact of all: An equation that put the era's most exciting and demanded maestro in a town where his official farewell concert drew only half a house simply didn't compute. Thomas was too big for the Buffalo Philharmonic audience. His star was still on the rise (still is, actually); the powers-that-be chose an end to glitter.

In retrospect, the '70s can now be seen as a staggering period for classical music culture in Buffalo. The Creative Associates (founded by Foss and Allen Sapp in 1965) were in full swing with their antic "Evenings for New Music." Thomas was all over town and holding forth with the orchestra in Kleinhans Music Hall. Morton Feldman was the Varese Professor of Music at the University at Buffalo. Lejaren Hiller -- often thought to have composed the first piece of computer music -- had preceded him at the UB music department. So had virtuoso pianist and composer Leo Smit. Peter Yates, whose book "Twentieth Century Music" remains one of the best and most lucid ever written on the subject, was chairman of the music department at Buffalo State College. In his tenure there, he brought to Buffalo such remarkable composers as Henry Brant and Lou Harrison for festivals of their music.

All but Smit and Thomas are now dead.

At one time, then, music critic Dwyer could reach for his phone and arrange a quick cup of coffee with some of classical music's most remarkable figures.

Once upon a time, Buffalo was indeed close to the center of the New Music universe.

That time ended on May 14, 1979. Chancellor Robert Ketter was already engaged in implementing the grim policies that would demolish the glory days of the UB English and music deparments (and, eventually, the Creative Associates).

Most likely, that time will never return. Classical music culture itself changed. Aristocratic patronage tended to migrate to sports teams. New music was perceived to be not-so-new. (Reheated and repackaged Dada, often.) Symphony orchestras were no longer the concern of baby boomers whose primary allegiance was rock, not Bach. Their feeling for the old social rituals of concert-going was less than devoted. So was their interest in a musical culture that is, by its very nature, authoritarian. (When a conductor signals the tiniest pianissimo, an entire orchestra has to react instantly.)

Subsequent generations have been no warmer.

The challenge, then, at the beginning of the JoAnn Falletta era, is immense.

But so is the intrinsic value of Buffalo's late-20th century musical history.

Once upon a time -- and not all that long ago -- exciting things happened all the time in Buffalo's classical music culture.

There was dazzling sun everywhere. And to steal Randall Jarrell's famous line about golden ages, there were, of course, hordes of people complaining about how yellow everything looked.

Many look at the new Philharmonic conductor and wonder if the Beatles said it best -- that "it's been a long cold lonely winter; it's been years since it's been clear" and that maybe, negotiations be willing, "here comes the sun."

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