This weekend, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is presenting a romantic toast to winter. The sunny, Russian-born pianist Natasha Paremski is the soloist in Brahms’ glorious Piano Concerto No. 1. And the concert winds up with Tchaikovsky’s atmospheric, wonderful Symphony No. 2, the “Little Russian.” This is music to warm the soul.
The concert begins with the 10-minute “Diversions” Overture by contemporary composer Jack Gallagher. After a nervous, rather dissonant start, it gave way to swashbuckling fun. You could imagine this as movie music, with its snappy timpani, colorful harp solos and gallant melodies. It was genuinely enjoyable and Gallagher, appearing on stage to take a bow, received heartfelt applause.
As the piano was wheeled out for the Brahms, the audience seemed hushed in anticipation. Paremski is a known quantity. A couple of years ago, she rocked Kleinhans with the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto. And on Saturday people were raving about her pre-concert talk, about how witty and personable she had been. You have to love a performer who can put aside pre-concert jitters to go out and yuk it up with the audience. That’s confidence.
You also have to love a performer who walks out to play Brahms wearing red shoes, which is what Paremski sported, along with a drop-dead red gown.
Whether intentionally or not, she is a pianist who holds her thunder. I remember her Rachmaninoff got off to kind of a hesitant start, and the Brahms, too, did not grab you from the word go. But she soon gets into things and from then on there is no question who is in charge. Saturday, she filled the music with a lot of youthful bravado. Her hair flew as she tackled those massive Brahms octaves, galloping up and down the keyboard. The effort added to the excitement.
In the slow movement, she reveled in the music’s tenderness. I took a moment to appreciate the raptness of the crowd, the thrilling feel of being in the middle of a couple of thousand people, all listening to Brahms. The orchestra, conducted by BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta, embraced the music as Paremski did, lovingly pouring out the rapturous themes.
Paremski has growing to do. She did not always communicate the deep, bittersweet longing that fills a lot of Brahms’ music, and certainly this concerto. She did, however, give the music strength and excitement, and she has a good sense of timing, giving the noble melodies space. The last movement begins with the piano, solo – and she took it and ran with it. She plays with apparent enjoyment, a wonderful thing in a performer, particularly when you are talking about music as challenging as this. The audience stood up and cheered her.
An encore followed, part of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata. The toccata-like piece was tons of fun, though after that noble Brahms it sounded like a lot of hammering. What could follow that concerto? Good question.
Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony came close. Here is an interesting factoid: The symphony’s first performance by the BPO, in 1947, was conducted by Igor Stravinsky.
Even without Stravinsky on the podium, the music’s Russian spirit boomed forth. Falletta revels in these big, colorful works, and the orchestra responds with passion. Jacek Muzyk, principal horn player, did a beautiful job with the haunting solo at the symphony’s start. From there, the symphony is like a sleigh ride through all the instruments of the orchestra. It seems everyone gets a turn in the spotlight: the moody bassoon, the muffled timpani, even the chirping piccolo.
Again the timing shone. Fortes were clipped and thrilling, and sharp Russian rhythms made you think of ballet. The last movement was a stunner. It starts with three stentorian chords and then whirls into a riot of troika rhythms and what sound like Russian folk songs. There were squeaks from the brass and thumps from the timpani. The violins, quick and virtuosic, sounded like chattering teeth.
The finale brought the house down. Tchaikovsky ratchets it up the way Rachmaninoff does when you are nearing the end, and those last chords, impeccably finessed, brought the house down.
The concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.