“JoAnn’s Classical Christmas” sold out on Friday morning. Quite a sight it was – every seat packed to the top rows. The crowds have been growing for Coffee Concerts, and this was a new high.
Maybe we can credit our California weather.
With no snow, nobody is stuck at home. At the same time, without the snow, you need that extra jolt of yuletide joy. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus struck a chord with “We Need a Little Christmas,” from “Mame.” Those lines “We haven’t seen a single flurry, but Santa dear, we’re in a hurry,” have a special relevance this year.
In other ways, we felt a comforting consistency with past Christmases. Kleinhans Music Hall is glittering, and so are the musicians in their festive scarlet. Music Director JoAnn Falletta, on the podium, outdid herself in a sparkling stripes of crimson and gold.
The program includes some of the best chestnuts. It opens with the Polonaise from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Christmas Eve,” evoking a glamorous Christmas in the palace of the czar. It ends with a sing-along, courtesy of Leroy Anderson.
In between are other treats listeners might recall happily from past years. The opening chorus of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” rang out rich and triumphant, spearheaded by trumpet and timpani. The chorus – prepared by director Adam Luebke, who was rightly led out for a bow – was in good voice. Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus was also, as always, a highlight. It’s extra exciting to hear it in this setting, with a hall full of people on their feet.
I wondered if the chorus could have been utilized more extensively. Long segments of the concert left them idle. The singers were featured in what for me was the one novelty of the concert, an excerpt from the oratario “Christus,” written by Felix Mendelssohn shortly before he died. What an ethereally lovely piece of music. It was sung in English and you could even catch the words.
More newness came thanks to our recently appointed concertmaster, Dennis Kim. He was both soloist and conductor for “Winter” from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” Falletta, after warmly introducing him, settled into the front row to watch. The pressure’s on!
For all his robust confidence, Kim is a delicate player. His neatly chiseled tone effectively brought across the teeth-chattering effects Vivaldi built into the piece’s first movement. The other string players echoed his intonation, and sounded like early music players. Kim took a similarly delicate approach to the slow movement – one of Vivaldi’s first-rate melodies – and added simple but effective improvisation.
Sal Andolina, whom Falletta described aptly as another of the orchestra’s superstars, contributed a laid-back “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” The soaring, feathery ending could make you shiver.
Also touching were the sublime Evening Prayer from the opera “Hansel and Gretel” and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on “Greensleeves.” And for Christmas thrills, Bizet’s Farandole from “L’Arlesienne” packed real punch. Bizet based this piece on the Three Kings carol that starts “From afar, and following a star …” Flashy and militant, it set the volume record for the day.
The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday in Kleinhans Music Hall. I hear it is all but sold out.