From the start, they called it a Grand Gala, a celebration of the opening not just of a new season, but of an entirely new era for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under the artistic guidance of JoAnn Falletta.
In the last few days, however, the word "gala" has taken on additional meaning, with the celebration expanding to include the successful last minute agreement on a contract between the BPO and the musicians' union, without which there would have been no concert.
So there was an extra feeling of festivity and just plain relief in the air Saturday evening as Falletta gave the downbeat for Gershwin's "Cuban Overture" to open the Latin flavored first half of the Gala concert. It struck me as a bit overplayed at first, which may simply have been a matter of the release of tension, an artistic safety valve letting off some of the steam that undoubtedly accumulated in the aura of uncertainty that had permeated the last two weeks.
In the more introspective moments of the work, however, there was some very tasteful playing by woodwinds and pensive strings, bringing the entire piece into focus for a bright, bracing performance.
The orchestra's major showcase was saved for the second half of the program, a performance of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" for large chorus, soloists and orchestra of 25 medieval poems, many by decidedly lusty unfrocked monks, praising the virtues of spring, drinking and love.
The music and messages range from sublimely lyrical to pounding and almost paganly rhythmic, often moving from one extreme to the other in a single leap, but always brilliantly orchestrated and excitingly propelled. Falletta describes it as ". . one of the most user-friendly classical pieces."
And this characteristic brought the performance through with flying colors. Falletta had complete control of the many crisp, sharp attacks and feverish driving rhythms. She also kept a fine balance between those pulsing, frenetically paced moments and the contrasting sections of transparent delicacy and beauty, as in the segue from the roistering choral "In taberna quando sumus" and the gorgeous orchestral opening of "The Court of Love."
Considering that a full orchestral/vocal rehearsal could not be held until Thursday, it was a remarkably good result that Falletta, the orchestra and singers produced. But the same circumstances also led to an occasional lack of polish or refinement in both the orchestral and choral work.
Kevin McMillan had the brunt of the solo work and produced a finely focused baritone sound, with a rather light but firm timbre. He also acted the role of a slightly tipsy abbot in "Ego sum abbas," with unsteady stance and a shirt tail hanging out. Tenor Michiel Schrey had just the kind of strained quality the text requires, as he sang about the feelings of a swan roasting on a spit. And although unsteady on her first entrance, soprano Nancy Allen Lundy sang with engagingly sweet repose during "In Trutina" and the brief "Dulcissime."
The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, prepared by Thomas Swan, had many strong moments, capped by its full, rich pealing tone in the penultimate "Ave formosissima," and the Choristers of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Dale Adelmann director, sounded wonderful in its exchanges with the orchestra during "Amor volat undique."
The bulk of the opening part of the program was turned over to Latin jazz trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval.
Sandoval proved to be a fantastic trumpet player whose ceaseless energy led him to play a nearby set of drums while not playing his horn, and even to take an extended piano solo. But his arrangements, conducted by Richard Kaufman were so over scored and over amplified that any distinctive qualities of the pieces and any sense of articulation in other solo instruments were swept away in the sonic chaos.