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Shire and his Buffalo friends gleam with BPO, vocal and jazz artists

The first time David Shire heard the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, William Steinberg was music director.

He divulged that astonishing fact Saturday at the start of a concert devoted to his music. Then, as he recalled other experiences with the orchestra, he turned and studied the musicians.

"Everyone up here has gotten so much younger," he said.

For all his success -- he wrote scores for Broadway's "Baby" and "Big," and off-Broadway shows "Starting Here," "Starting Now" and "Closer Than Ever," plus songs for Oscar-winning films -- he is remarkably ego-free.

Saturday's concert certainly had its charms.

The excellent first half began with a couple of movie themes, the extroverted "Max Dugan Returns" and the goofy but lovable "Manhattan Skyline," from "Saturday Night Fever."

Lynne Wintersteller, a singer Shire brought from New York, did a beautiful job with "It Goes Like It Goes," the Oscar-winning song from "Norma Rae." Mary Kate O'Connell sang "I Hear Bells" with understated wit.

Unfortunately, we common people in the balcony couldn't catch many of the words. This was a recurring problem throughout the night. It was terribly frustrating, considering the cleverness of the lyrics.

But we heard Shire loud and clear when he took to the piano, with BPO Resident Conductor Robert Franz conducting, for the jazzy theme from the Francis Ford Coppola movie "The Conversation." It sounded like a conversation, gently chattering, rising and falling. Later we heard Shire's theme from "Return to Oz," which I imagine was a tribute to the original "Wizard of Oz." It had a nostalgic 1930s sound.

"Shades of Blue," a world premiere of a concerto Shire wrote for Buffalo jazzman Bobby Militello, was a ton of fun. It had four distinctly different sections. Militello's flute playing shone in "Coral Blue," which let him stretch out the way he likes to do on the instrument. And "Jet Blue" featured a smoking solo by Bobby Jones, who had somehow slipped behind the piano when no one was looking.

The suite sped by quickly, never losing momentum. It was airy, jocular jazz, and Shire employed the orchestra colorfully, with a lot of changes in texture.

Militello also soloed in "With You I'm Born Again." What a kick to see them interacting, the big, brassy Militello and the lanky, low-key Shire.

The show's second half was a bit frustrating. Militello and Jones, joined by guitarist Mike Moser, bassist Bill Staebell and drummer John Bacon Jr., made up one heck of a combo. But they didn't get much of a chance to show off. Most of the tunes we heard, witty as they are, aren't great vehicles for jazz musicians.

The program also suffered from too much estrogen. In O'Connell and Company's cute production of "Starting Here, Starting Now," a man sings the witty "I Don't Remember Christmas." But Saturday, we heard everything, including that song, from a woman's viewpoint. It got to be a bit much.

Shire, however, didn't seem to mind the feminine atmosphere. In "One Step" he even donned a top hat and cavorted, hilariously, between O'Connell and Wintersteller. He was clearly enjoying himself.

It made you hope he was renewing his friendship with Buffalo. Starting here, starting now.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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