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Mahler's music soars to where words fail

Every once in a while, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra turns out a performance that's remembered, discussed and sighed over for a long time. The orchestra's take on Mahler's dynamic First Symphony, known aptly as the "Titan," will go down in history that way.

It was overpowering. Orgiastic. Bombastic. Go ahead, pile on the adjectives.

It's hard to imagine anything being enough.

Mahler's symphony brings out everything that is wonderful about our orchestra and the remarkable acoustics of Kleinhans Music Hall. It's a thrill just to witness the sheer layers of sound.

Music Director JoAnn Falletta led the attack like a general leading an army. And from the first movement, it was clear she and the assembled forces had a clear battle plan. The birdlike twitters that begin the symphony and the scattered fanfares that followed were unhurried -- indulgent, even. But the overall pace was strong and forward-moving.

Throughout the work, love was in the details. Timpanist Jesse Kregal added subtlety and drama. Tender playing from the flutes set off the section of the third movement in which Mahler recalls his sad song about the linden tree from "Songs of a Wayfarer." The brass shone, as you knew they would.

The trumpets and horns more than did justice to that magnificent crashing breakthrough in the first movement -- it was all a listener could do not to laugh in delight. Mercurial outbursts, deftly choreographed, added color and bombast.

Everything sounded alert and alive.

And the end! I've always thought Mahler grabbed that conquering theme from Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" ("And He shall reign for ever and ever. . .").

Whether you believe that or not, it blasted forth like a chorus of archangels, with an air of triumph and eternity. During the final moments, in a superb touch of showmanship, the brass section stood up. The closing chords, brisk and exquisitely calibrated, brought the house down. People were yelling and cheering.

You can't beat the Buffalo Philharmonic for large-scale Romanticism.

The night began with Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony. The pairing of the "Titan" and the "Jupiter," I'm afraid, worked out better on paper than in reality.

The trouble was, maybe to make room for the sprawling Mahler, the "Jupiter" flew by all too fast. The chamber-size orchestra played it well, especially the silken melodies of the slow movement. But the performance skipped most of the repeats, giving it a hurried, perfunctory feel.

I know I tend to dwell on skipped repeats, but they would have added only five or 10 minutes, and they are needed here -- not only to be true to the Classical sonata form, but also to give listeners time to focus.

As it was, the Mozart was served as a kind of bon-bon to introduce the Mahler. It's regrettably short shrift to give the greatest symphony of the Classical era, perhaps of all time.

If you go to the concert -- and I highly recommend it -- get in your seat early, quiet yourself and breathe.

Try not to miss a single note.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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