Friday morning’s Coffee Concert at Kleinhans Music Hall felt like an evening concert, there were so many people. Our hosts had decked the hall. Red ribbons were draped from the ceiling. The singers and musicians looked merry and bright.
Ron Spigelman, the BPO’s former associate conductor, is in town this weekend to conduct “Classic Christmas.” The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus is on hand, and two special guests were Buffalo’s Castellani/Andriaccio Guitar Duo, playing a beautifully quiet concerto by Vivaldi.
The generous program began gracefully with the Prelude to Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.”
Spigelman recognizes this music’s greatness. When he had his BPO post he conducted a semi-staged version of it on the Kleinhans stage, and it was enchanting. From the first dignified tones of the “Evening Prayer,” the Prelude had a Wagnerian beauty. The horn section shone.
After that, the concert was like a chocolate box, with treats you expect and surprise treats, too. Among the anticipated bonbons were two choruses from Handel’s “Messiah”; the pretty Eastern shepherds’ dance from Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”
All that was fun to hear. But the novelties were even better.
One exotic addition was a tender “Ave Maria” by 20th century German composer Franz Biebl. This seemed to have replaced Winter from Glazunov’s “The Seasons,” which was seen in the program but not heard.
Spigelman explained this hymn was written as a gift for a group of Bavarian firefighters who sang, and for a long time it languished in some drawer somewhere (kind of like “Silent Night,” which lay forgotten for years in an organ loft).
Biebl’s “Ave Maria” was happily rediscovered, and now, Spigelman said, Chanticleer sings it at every concert. It was new to me, and it is fascinating, like looking at the Renaissance through 20th century eyes. The Latin words are the “Hail Mary” interspersed with Gospel verses about Jesus’ birth. It sounds challenging, and the chorus did an admirable job with it. It has an almost unearthly reverence.
Spigelman also gave us the “Adoration of the Magi” from the “Three Botticelli Paintings” by the wonderful Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. With its echoes of “Veni, Veni Emmanuel,” it was perfect for the occasion, and featured subtle playing by the woodwinds – including, Spigelman pointed out to the audience, Principal Bassoonist Glenn Einschlag.
The concert made me appreciate Spigelman. His enthusiasm shines. If anything, he is even more fun than he was 10 years ago. He calls up names, dates and places without glancing at any notes. He told us how Richard Strauss conducted the premiere of “Hansel and Gretel” on Dec. 23, 1893. And that Corelli’s patron was a cardinal, Pietro Ottoboni.
While some conductors are economical, and there is nothing wrong with that, Spigelman has wide, expansive gestures. (Out of breath at one point, he admitted it was a workout.) He has a sensitive approach, though, and took good care with Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto” and the Castellani/Andriaccio Duo’s Vivaldi concerto.
It was a great idea to feature this duo, husband-and-wife team Joanne Castellani and Michael Andriaccio. These two are such fine musicians. And the two guitars in front of the orchestra looked Spanish and festive.
Parts of the concert sounded a little underrehearsed, and this concerto was one of them.
It seemed there was some disconnect between soloists and orchestra. But any labor was worth it for the exquisite slow movement. It resembles the famous slow movement of Vivaldi’s more famous Concerto in D. It has that transcendent delicacy. A lull fell over the hall, as people drank it in. Even the crowd of schoolchildren looked silent and rapt.
The concert ended with a carol sing-along, preceded by Principal Cellist Roman Mekinulov showing his gentle side in “Silent Night.” It was a simple but affecting arrangement Spigelman loves by Mannheim Steamroller. On piano was Susan Schuman, who filled in well and frequently through the concert on piano, cembalo and celeste.
This charming Christmas concert repeats at 8 tonight.