This weekend’s Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert at Kleinhans Music Hall featured one of the longest and loudest rounds of applause I can recall.
It occurred after Principal Cellist Roman Mekinulov had performed the new Concierto en Tango, written for him by Miguel del Aguila. The concerto was sparkling and fun-loving, and Mekinulov, with his star quality and maverick ways, is one of the most popular and visible musicians in the BPO. As he took one, then two, then three curtain calls – hefting his cello along with him – the big crowd of listeners, almost all of them on their feet, cheered and cheered.
This concert is full of visceral excitement.
It starts with Maurice Ravel’s haunting, swirling “La Valse.” BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta, conducting the concert, took the rare step of making a speech to introduce it. She was uncharacteristically somber as she spoke of how Ravel blamed Germany and Austria for World War I, and expressed these feelings by taking the Viennese waltz form and corrupting it gradually into sinister chaos.
Thus primed, you could not help but be drawn into this nightmarish whirl. The waltzes initially sounded courtly and graceful – Ravel takes his time before getting to the sinister part – but when the trouble hit, you could feel it. The sharp snap of the drums, the clatter of percussion mingled with mutters and sighs from the strings. It was a tremendous show of virtuosity as well as a glimpse of terror.
The new Del Aguila concerto turned the mood upside-down.
This good-natured piece, an homage to tango, clearly took real skill to put together. It is shot through with tango rhythms, many outlined by Del Aguila himself on the piano. Mekinulov was poised for the challenge and his enthusiasm showed in his playing.
He is always engaged, always involved, whether he is performing as a soloist or part of an ensemble. That is an excellent thing in a musician. And it makes it great fun to see him in the spotlight. He gave a rich assertiveness to his melodies, which were the type of melodies that grab you and that you can remember. The orchestra backed him up with the kind of dazzle that could make you think of Broadway.
The music sways and dips like tango dancers. Adding to the excitement, Del Aguila has it set up so that a couple of other musicians step forward now and then and join the cello soloist in the spotlight. At times it is a bassist – I am guessing that was Daniel Pendley, the principal bassist – who plucked the strings and laid down the beat like a jazzman. At other junctures it was the concertmaster. Sometimes all three are up front, and they look like a trio.
That is nice creativity. To stir the pot just a little more, we have a guest concertmaster, one of the master violinists being considered as the successor to Michael Ludwig. The guest concertmaster is Yuriy Bekker. A native of Minsk, Belarus, he is now concertmaster and acting artistic director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.
Bekker did a fine job with this unusual concerto, matching Mekinulov’s enthusiasm and pouring melody into his own lines. Mekinulov, meanwhile, got in thrilling deep passages, digging low in the cello’s range. He took a bold turn in a cadenza passage. He achieved exotic pizzicato effects and also high whistling sounds, sounds you would not think the instrument was capable of.
The piece grew kind of addictive, with its rhythm and zing. The last section struck a gentler tone, with slinky, chromatic lines. It was a little like “La Valse” in that it grew to a ferocious high point, with groans from the cello and crashing cymbals. It made you want to stand up and cheer, and the crowd did.
Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” followed the pattern of gentleness leading to something wild. Parts of the music had great tenderness and mournful nostalgia. (As long as we heard that speech about “La Valse,” maybe we could have heard about the regrettable situation in Russia that doomed Rachmaninoff to permanent exile.)
Even when the music is sorrowing, though, it’s always full of that romance and beauty that was Rachmaninoff’s hallmark. Falletta and the BPO gave it room and lingered on its gloriously lovely passages, making it tremendously enjoyable. They deserve a big “Bravi” for the ease they brought to the piece, which is very challenging. The stunning Rachmaninoff ending was a blast – a big thunder, and then over in a second, as Matthew Bassett sharply silences the timpani. It was a thrill.
The concert repeats today at 2:30 p.m.