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Philharmonic’s Russian concert both electric and fun

It’s officially Christmas at Kleinhans Music Hall. Sparkly trees have sprung up everywhere, surrounded by gold-wrapped presents. And the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s Russian-themed concert is a toast to winter.

You could imagine the BPO leadership planning it, imagining a snowy December night. Pianist Beatrice Rana is here to play Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, and then guest conductor Thomas Wilkins is conducting Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, “Winter Dreams.” No one would have dreamed we’d have this Northern California weather, not after what we went through last year. I don’t think anyone is complaining. If you miss that wintry ambiance, all you have to do is go to Kleinhans, close your eyes, and listen.

The concert starts with a modern piece, Peter Boyer’s “New Beginnings.” It’s lovely. And it is very festive, opening with snappy brass fanfares. Percussion pops, and timpani booms forth viscerally, like fireworks.

Boyer is a creative orchestrator, engineered powerful ringing sound effects. The music also had heart. Amid the blasts from the brass there emerges a sweet interlude that could be a movie theme. I think everyone enjoyed this brief piece. When it was over, some people stood and applauded.

Beatrice Rana, a silver medalist not long ago at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, made a beautiful entrance in a long cobalt-blue gown. Her hairstyle, too, was such that you could imagine her walking out on stage in 1913, when Prokofiev wrote his Second Piano Concerto.

At the piano, too, Rana delivered a lot of atmosphere. In her early 20s, she is not yet at the point where she visibly owns the piece. where she can turn it out with effortless aplomb. You could see that she was working hard. But that creates a certain excitement, and she made it work for her.

This concerto is an endless barrage. It starts gently enough, with a dreamy, wandering theme, but then it takes off and it hardly ever lets up. It places tremendous demands on a pianist, and to see Rana working her way through it was like watching some kind of gymnast.

She is a precise player – a place for everything and everything in its place. Her hands snap back from the keyboard right on the nanosecond. She gives the impression of slapping the piano the way a jazz bassist slaps that bass. She projects energy and concentration. In the first movement’s monstrous cadenza, she traced big wheeling figures with the right hand while articulating thundering octaves with the left.

It was all electric and fun. Wilkins, on the podium, was a good conductor for her. He had similar precision. He has clipped economical movements, and turns crisply and sharply this way and that and he cues the various sections. The performance had a good sense of purpose in addition to its drama and force. The end was tremendous. A lot of people in the good-sized crowd jumped up immediately, and everyone gave Rana a big hand.

Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Dreams” was just as it should be – lush, leisurely and brooding.

Our new concertmaster, Dennis Kim, is back on the stick, and he led the violin section with pathos and passion. The cellos, led by Principal Cellist Roman Mekinulov, also projected a fine urgent energy. It’s always a kick to see Mekinulov playing music of his Russian countrymen. He pours himself into it.

This symphony has so many beautiful moments, and I would say that audience and musicians alike enjoyed it. If you are new to classical music, it’s a fine choice for a first concert. Parts of the first movement could make you think of “The Nutcracker.” There is that romantic dance feeling. Later in the symphony, a wistful waltz sweeps you into the Romantic era.

The concert repeats Sunday at 2:30 p.m.


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