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Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 sets the stage emphatically

Looking back on Sunday's Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Beethoven program at Artpark, it was so exciting you almost can't call it a concert. It was more like a two-pronged attack, beginning with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C and ending with the Ninth Symphony.

You'd think that the piano concerto, an early work we don't hear that often, would have been dwarfed by the mighty Ninth. That wasn't the case. It says something for pianist Sara Buechner, not to mention the BPO and Resident Conductor Robert Franz, that the concerto turned into such a sleeper hit.

You can never tell by looking at a soloist what kind of a performance you are in for. With her skirt and pumps, Buechner looked conservative. But her playing was anything but. She played with fire and sparkle, her tone crisp and forceful. Frequently, she'd hit a note so hard that her hand would fly up from the impact.

Her performance played up the excitement of this piece, which was clearly inspired by the great Mozart concertos but also foreshadowed Beethoven's own "Emperor" Concerto. Buechner churned out great measures of volume, threw herself into the rhythms and made everyone sit up and take notice. The big crowd gave her a long, heartfelt standing ovation. Not an easy act to follow.

In fact, the Ninth didn't quite get off to a good start. Franz didn't wait long enough to begin the piece. People were still talking and walking to their seats. Those first, haunting tones -- it's believed that Beethoven was communicating what it sounded like to be deaf -- have to come out of silence.

Not only that, but if you don't demand that silence, audience members get the idea it's OK to talk. Chatter went on for some time.

Maybe because of the initial awkwardness, the first two movements didn't satisfy as much as the last two. But the last two made up for a lot.

The Adagio's tender, sorrowing lines poured forth with warmth. The first violins, with Amy Glidden as concertmaster, had a rich, passionate sound. You could sense from this performance why Romantic composers, culminating in Mahler, were so moved and inspired by this brooding, heart-melting piece.

The last movement began with a feeling of suspense. Franz paced it well, unleashing the exuberance gradually. The cellos shaped the "Ode to Joy" theme beautifully, and everyone on stage seemed alert and alive.

One of the greatest moments in music arrives when the baritone -- in this case, Leonard Rowe -- stands and delivers the first vocal line of the Ninth Symphony, "O Freunde, nicht diese Tonen" (Oh, friends, not these sounds). Rowe pulled it off tremendously. He sang the line in bright, commanding tones, enunciating the syllables with drama and clarity.

And then we were off and running. The other soloists -- Rachel Holland singing soprano; Sebnem Mekinulov singing the mezzo-soprano part; and tenor Joe Dan Harper -- all brought to the table not only musicianship but positive energy.

The chorus, made up of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Chorus Niagara, deserves special kudos. The singers' diction was splendid, and they seemed to have a real feel for the meaning of the music and where it was heading.

The ending of this musical thrill ride brought a second standing ovation.

BPO's Summerfest continues this weekend. Saturday, Michael Ludwig will be the soloist in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, and Sunday afternoon, pianist Christopher O'Riley will be in town for a live taping of his radio show, "From the Top."


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