Great melodies? Czech.
Fine musicianship? Czech.
Sorry, that was irresistible. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has titled its March 4 and 5 concert “Czech Masters,” and it overflows with good things.
Music Director JoAnn Falletta is conducting two pieces by Vitezslav Novak, a composer few have probably heard of but clearly a master of distinction. The music is utterly enjoyable, with a lot to watch and listen for, and resonant, romantic peaks and valleys. The BPO is perfectly primed for this kind of expansive, virtuosic music.
And speaking of virtuosity, our guest artist this weekend is cellist Nicolas Altstaedt. Altstaedt, in his early 30s, cuts a bohemian figure with his concentrated manner and pre-Raphaelite mop of dark hair. He gave an imaginative, intense performance of the great Cello Concerto of Sir Edward Elgar.
The two Novak pieces, the “Overture to Lady Godiva” and “Eternal Longing,” and both new to the BPO, and are worth the wait. They live up to their alluring titles. “Lady Godiva,” a concert overture written in 1905, begins with a blare of brass and percussion, burst from there into a flurry of cellos and unfolded like a rich tapestry, with a variety of vivid colors and textures. It was enveloping music, and it wrapped around you with a kind of surround sound. Principal clarinetist John Fullam took a beautiful solo turn.
There were also a couple of picturesque solos in the other Novak piece, “Eternal Longing.” Principal violist Valerie Heywood gave poetry and resonance to a viola solo, an unusual treat. And our new concertmaster, Dennis Kim, put his all into a solo as well. The orchestra’s enthusiasm was evident throughout these pieces. This music might not have memorable melodies, but it has glory and momentum, and keeps your attention.
The Elgar concerto did, too.
This piece brims with sublime melodies, and Altstaedt approached them on his own terms. He projected a strong singing tone and he played with dramatic, broad gestures, using every millimeter of the bow. Sometimes he paused to push back his hair. You got the feeling that it was not empty showmanship, that he really was exerting himself.
The famously lovely Adagio was heart-melting. Altstaedt played up its sweetness with graceful portamento, gliding seamlessly from one note to the next. Deep in concentration, he was clearly in the zone, and the music sounded spontaneous, as if he were feeling his way along.
Admirably, the orchestra matched that feeling. It was a thrill to hear Altstaedt and the BPO begin in faultless synch, and they continued as if breathing together. There was one great moment when Altstaedt, extravagantly taking his time, lingered on a note, while Falletta and the musicians, turned toward him, simply waited. Time seemed to stand still. It was as if we were all traveling through this piece together.
The last movement was exciting and ended with flair. Altstaedt gave Falletta a long and heartfelt hug and then bowed, his mop of hair falling over his face. The audience, loving the drama, cheered. And we got an encore. Altstaedt played Bach. He rewarded the enthusiasm with a delicate, teasing, highly original take on a stately Bach sarabande.
The concert ended on a high note with a lively, uplifting performance of Smetana’s ever-popular “The Moldau,” from “Ma Vlast.”
This Bohemian adventure repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday at Kleinhans Music Hall.