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Guest conductor, pianist add sparkle to concerto

This weekend's Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert is lighthearted, sparkling and over before you know it. Tan Lihua, principal conductor of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, is guest conductor. The featured soloist is Israeli-born pianist Orli Shaham, celebrated sister of violinist Gil Shaham.

The concert's centerpiece is the Saint-Saens Second Piano Concerto.

This concerto is one flashy showpiece. Which is not to say it is not very good music -- it is.

It captures your attention and keeps it, from its declamative beginning, a solo on the piano, to its crashing ending. It is comical, sometimes, in its orchestral fanfares, its barrages of notes.

Shaham is stronger than you might expect, and was up to the music's technical demands. But she is not intrinsically a flashy pianist, and it was interesting how she brought classical sensibilities to the music. I found myself admiring her playing as if she were playing a Mozart sonata, delighting in the crisp delineation of her trills, her moments of quiet wit. The scherzo, a crowd favorite, was a kick. Shaham had just the right touch, and she communicated beautifully with her colleagues, so the timing and subtleties were perfect. In the churning last movement the orchestra, rolling forward under Tan Lihua's cheery direction, occasionally drowned out the piano. It was all a lot of fun. There was no encore -- more proof, maybe, of the pianist's restraint.

Throughout the piece there was a problem with the piano tuning -- one funky key in particular, the G above middle C, was in a crucial spot and so kept jumping out at you. Maybe we could get this fixed by the time the concert repeats.

The program opens with "Tibet Dance," by Fang Kejie, a Chinese composer born in 1958. With its catchy rhythms and Asian-sounding melodies, it is seven minutes of nonstop fun. There are jingles and rattles and expansive melodies. The timpani gets a workout. It was nice of Tan Lihua to bring us this piece.

The concert ends with Borodin's Symphony No. 2. In a way it harked back to the opening piece because it had glimpses of similar Asian rhythms and melodies. Borodin's Russian environment, when you think about it, was not that far away.

You could sit around with your friends and a few beers and debate whether the Borodin and the Saint-Saens should have switched places. The Borodin, while lovely, is horizontal and contemplative, not so much grand finale material.

But it is full of those romantic Russian melodies Borodin crafted so beautifully. There are hints of the "Polovtsian Dances." And the piece made beautiful use of the BPO's expressive woodwinds and brass. Tan Lihua gave the stark statements that opened the piece a martial feel, and you could feel, in a physical sense, the rich textures and crazy percussion of the last movement. The slow movement, opening with a shimmer of harp, was exotic and evocative. The concert repeats today at 2:30 p.m.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Classics Concert with guest conductor Tan Lihua and pianist Orli Shaham.

Saturday evening and 2:30 p.m. today in Kleinhans Music Hall.

Tickets are $25-$75. Call 885-5000 or visit www.bpo.org.