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Bell brings violin virtuosity as BPO jumps into new season

Buffalo has it going on. Just look at how the planets have lined up.

The Buffalo Bills played their first home game on Thursday. Curtain Up!, the start of the theater season, was Friday. And on Saturday, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra kicked off its 2016-17 season.

It is rare and significant to have these three momentous events all in a row, just like that. Plus, there was a full moon – a harvest moon, to make things even more dramatic. What is this all adding up to? Only time will tell.

But it has to be good. The Philharmonic’s opening concert was festive. For one thing, it was announced that the musicians had just ratified a six-year contract. For another thing, the hall was all but sold out for a gala event featuring violinist Joshua Bell.

The orchestra and Music Director JoAnn Falletta began the night with a barrage of Spanish flair. The national anthems of Canada and the United States, traditionally played at the start of the season, were followed by Spanish dances – the Suite No. 2 from Manuel De Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat.”

This is unpredictable, capricious music. Dennis Kim, the concertmaster, was on the edge of his seat. All the musicians seemed alert and engaged. You could hear it in the sharp syncopations, the flashy percussion. At one point, the timpani gave such a thump that I laughed out loud.

You can tell it will be a good season when, in the first piece, Falletta goes airborne. That happened. She jumped in the air. Still, it was all beautifully controlled, to thrilling effect. Every time you thought it couldn’t get wilder, it did. Musicians and music director share the credit for the finely crafted wit and liveliness.

Next came a tender interlude, the Intermezzo from Granados’ “Goyescas.” This is such lyrical music, beginning with the violin’s sensuous lines, played over cello pizzicato. The bittersweet harmonies could remind you of Richard Strauss. The orchestra took its time with it, shaping the music with love and attention. It was a highlight of the night, and the audience recognized that with heartfelt applause.

More fireworks followed, with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol.” You will never hear this showpiece performed better than the BPO played it. Flutes, violins, timpani and brass played off each other with clarity and dash. There was an earthy solo by concertmaster Kim, and a stunning, shimmering harp solo courtesy of Suzanne Thomas. Falletta was again leaping and jumping, and the orchestra matched her athletic approach. It was a thrill, and the audience loved it. The applause went on and on.

After all that pizzazz, the concert’s second half was a complete change of pace.

Bell, who has made several memorable appearances here, has a low-key, intimate kind of virtuosity. He also has a low-key appearance. In contrast to the men in the orchestra, who were in formal attire, Bell was dressed plainly in black, like a mime. I don’t quite understand that.

Well, whatever. The man can play. He was playing Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, a romantic and heart-melting masterpiece. Bell has his own unique approach. It is a kind of understated directness. He doesn’t overthink the music. He calls it as he sees it, is the impression I get. He followed the lines of the Bruch concerto with precision and grace. It was a joy to hear him play a chromatic line, the notes quick and clear. The Adagio movement brimmed with loveliness. Bell was in the zone, just moving with the music. There is something touching about this boyish, unprepossessing figure pouring out these beautiful phrases, these long, legato lines. It draws you in. When the Adagio ended and the last movement began, it was like waking from a dream. Judging from the silence, the entire hall felt it.

The last movement was fiery with a gypsy feel. Bell rewarded the applause with an encore, the theme from “Ladies in Lavender.”

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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