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Shea's Alive BPO, Mighty Wurlitzer mark theater's 80th year with spirited concert

Eighty years ago, when Shea's Buffalo opened, it was billed as "the Wonder Theatre." The marquee trumpeted "an acre of seats."

Thursday's concert at Shea's by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director JoAnn Falletta toasted the theater's anniversary with just the right festive tone. The evening was big, spirited and epic.

We have so much to celebrate. Something like 30 years ago, Shea's almost fell to the wrecking ball. Now it has been restored, in all its rococo magnificence. The Philharmonic, too, barely survived a few lean years but here it is still, strong and splendid.

How right that the BPO's concert pulled out all the stops.

It did so in more ways than one. The guest star was celebrity organist Anthony Newman, who enthroned himself at the fully restored Mighty Wurlitzer and played Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Louis Vierne's "Carillon on Westminster Chimes." He also joined the BPO in a set of Mozart's "Church Sonatas" and the second movement from Saint-Saens' majestic "Organ Symphony," not to mention excerpts from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera."

By and large, the night belonged to Newman. He is a magnificent showman, bright and extroverted. "It's almost as if he's flying an airplane," I distinctly heard a woman whisper in the row ahead of me. She was right.

A good deal of what an organist does is mechanical. Newman was at the controls of an impressive machine, with its many manuals and banks of stops. Furthermore, it was a necessity that his back was to the audience.

Still, he connected emotionally. When he had a few bars of rest, and the orchestra was playing, he would sway to the beat, at one with the music. At the end of a piece, he'd sweep his arms upward, fingers spread wide. People went nuts.

Recordings aren't kind to the organ. Listening to a disc, you don't get that feeling in the gut you get when you hear a mighty instrument like this live. You can't feel the vibrations, and you miss the three-dimensional effect from sounds blasting at you from various points in space.

That's why, live, the music was a revelation. The Mozart was rather startling, especially if you were used to discs. The theater organ, suddenly conspicuous, swept at you from odd angles, with odd timbres. Sometimes it dwarfed the orchestra. In K. 245, the bell-like sound effects, though charming, weren't like any performance I'd ever heard.

But in spirit, the performance was close to perfect. It brought out, with a shining surety, the music's brightness and pageantry. The joy was catching.

Bach's Toccata and Fugue, brisk and moving, transcended the cliches. The defiant, youthful music made you want to smile in naive delight. Newman, playing deftly from memory, displayed tremendous finesse and facility.

The Vierne was a special treat. The big-hearted improvisations on the famous Big Ben chimes pealed forth with strength, humor and power. Greedily, I found myself wishing we had the bouncy colored lights on the Mighty Wurlitzer switched on. Well, that would probably have been overkill.

The concert was a delight partly because it gave us a chance to hear pieces we almost never get to hear live. The "Sabre Dance," which opened the concert, was an old chestnut, sure. But the Mozart, Vierne and concluding Saint-Saens were rare treats.

Saint-Saens fans grumbled that we couldn't hear the whole symphony. Still, orchestra and organ made the most of the "Maestoso" movement. The tumultuous music, enjoyably over the top, would have enthralled the composer, who knew a thing or two about drama. Organ and orchestra sounded balanced, in sync, and united in purpose.

Newman acknowledged the cheers with a spirited Bach gigue.


WHAT: Shea's 80th Anniversary Celebration Concert featuring the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

WHEN: Thursday night

WHERE: Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. e-mail:

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