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BPO park concert is a treat recalling the good old days

Tuesday's Bidwell Park concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was like going back in time, to a small-town America you think exists only in books.

A gigantic crowd packed the street. People walked from blocks away, bearing beer and lawn chairs. Dogs with bandannas, kids running barefoot, ice cream for a buck. Maestro Paul Ferington on the podium, conducting the National Anthem. Perfect.

And then the delightful, upbeat overture to Mikhail Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmilla," a staple of light classics concerts since, well, General Bidwell was alive. The evening was complete!

Nostalgia aside, though, Tuesday's program was varied and interesting.

You couldn't hear every subtlety of the heart-melting music from Stravinsky's "The Firebird." Heck, with all the bedlam, you couldn't hear half of it. (One woman asked, "Where was the harp? I thought they said there'd be a harp solo.")

But you could hear "The Firebird" when its stirring main theme blasted forth finally at top volume. One little boy covered his ears. So did an older kid, who was trying to hear his iPod. What drama that piece gave us. The acoustics were great for it.

Two movements from Dvorak's "American Suite" were a delight. Such colorful orchestration -- the woodwinds were in wonderful form -- and such melodies from the age of steamboats and minstrels. Why don't we hear this music more often?

A special guest was the young violinist Ana Lia Vafai, who won a Millonzi scholarship from the BPO and will be heading off in the fall to the Eastman School of Music. Vafai played the first movement of Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1.

Ferington tried to silence the crowd. That was impossible. Even in our corner, which was pretty quiet, we had to deal with a game of "Go Fish."

But Vafai, stunning in a one-shoulder dress, was mistress of the situation. Radiating calm and confidence, she began the piece with a firm, assertive tone, and sailed easily and winningly into the lyrical romantic themes that followed.

Vafai doesn't shrink from raw emotion. She seemed fearless when it came to the loud, dramatic outbursts that punctuate the piece. This is big, muscular music, and she took it on with force and grace. Brava!

BPO bass trombonist Stefan Sanders, essaying conducting this summer, led four orchestral excerpts from Bizet's "Carmen." They were bright and sparkling, particularly the sly "Seguidilla" and rousing bullfight music, during which kids and dogs grew agitated.

A medley from "West Side Story," oddly missing the famous "Somewhere," brought the concert to a theatrical close. So rousing was the applause that Ferington threw his forces into an encore.

It was Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." And it was as stirring a performance as you could ever hope to witness. People were clapping in time, babies were dancing, dogs were barking and a crowd in front of a beautiful home was waving a big American flag back and forth in time to the music. It was more patriotic action than this particular corner has seen in a long time. What fun.



>Concert Review

Buffalo Philharmonic OrchestraTuesday night on Bidwell Parkway as part of Summer in the Parks series.

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