Michael Ludwig, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's concertmaster, stepped into the spotlight as soloist Saturday, performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. The work was the centerpiece of a beautiful Romantic evening that began with Beethoven and ended with Tchaikovsky.
Buffalo has heard Ludwig as soloist once before, when he performed the "Carmen" Fantasy by Pablo de Sarasate. The Mendelssohn gave us a chance to see a different side of his solo artistry. Whereas the "Carmen" was flashy, the Mendelssohn is introspective, lyrical and haunting. Ludwig played it as if he felt it deeply.
At the same time, he found ways to express his own personality. Conducted by BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta, the semi-outdoors Artpark performance had a touch of informality. Ludwig wore a white jacket that looked Chinese -- and probably is, seeing that he and Falletta recently got back from performing in Shanghai. Early in the first movement, as he was waiting for the orchestra to finish stating the theme, he apparently recognized someone in the crowd and flashed a big smile.
The Mendelssohn concerto is clearly something Ludwig knows inside and out, but he never sounds asleep at the wheel. He played the music passionately, swaying to the first movement's glorious theme. The cadenza he played crested with a melting high note. High notes are a forte of Ludwig's. He likes to linger on them, wistfully, as if he doesn't want to let them go.
His phrasing could sometimes surprise -- sometimes, he seemed to go out of his way to portray a familiar theme in a new light. The real magic, though, lay in his straightforward, graceful tone. The slow movement was exquisitely tender, and the last movement was just pure pleasure. The big crowd went crazy, giving him a standing ovation.
Before the concerto, Apprentice Conductor Stefan Sanders conducted a zesty take on Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture. This piece is a showstopper in its own right, and Sanders and the musicians built it up to a stunning dramatic climax.
And talk about stunning. The night ended with Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, which I bet you could hear back in Buffalo.
Certain pieces bring the past alive. Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" conjures up medieval Germany, and Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, which the BPO is playing at Artpark next weekend, embodies the spirit of 19th century America. Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, with its brass fanfares, glitter and Slavic marches, brings Czarist Russia to life. No movie can beat it.
The Philharmonic musicians threw themselves into the music. The rumble of the basses, the wall of sound from the brass section, the jingle of the triangle -- it all added up to intense color and sound. The scherzo was especially entrancing. Watching the orchestra play it, from the impressively calibrated pizzicato strings to the tossed-around woodwind riffs, was like watching an exquisitely choreographed ballet.
The Philharmonic's Summerfest series continues at 3 p.m. today. Pianist Christopher O'Riley joins the orchestra for what promises to be a fascinating taping of his radio program "From the Top," which spotlights young musicians and is broadcast nationally.
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Michael Ludwig on Saturday night in Artpark Mainstage Theater.