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Buffalo Philharmonic’s first Pops concert of season is a soundtrack success

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s inaugural Pops concert of the season was a pretty solid success. There was nary an unfilled seat in the house and the parking lots – and many of the side streets – were filled with cars.

Program music drawn from popular soundtrack scores by John Williams was a safe hit with the audience, and the orchestra – led by BPO Pops conductor John Morris Russell – delivered performances that drew excitement, humor and pathos from familiar material.

This was not an evening of dial-it-in performances although, due to the successful films from which these tunes were drawn, the possibilities hung around right up until the start of the second piece played.

I start there because the march from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which began the evening, was a stereotypical entry point for a Williams-themed program. What followed was the composer’s arrangement of thematic material from the Jerry Bock score to “Fiddler On the Roof.” Klezmer-like cadences romped through the opening until BPO concertmaster Dennis Kim delivered a beautifully nuanced solo that foreshadowed the quality that would follow.

Russell was an energetic master of ceremonies, in addition to leading members of the orchestra through their paces. He told stories about the pieces being played and the movies they starred in and basically won the audience over with his attitude.

When, during a particularly energetic moment in “Call of the Champions” (the theme for the 2002 Winter Olympics and the only nonsoundtrack moment of the evening), Russell lost control of his baton – sending it all the way back to the fourth row of the violin section – he and the orchestra didn’t miss a beat. The accident allowed him to make a joke about “javelin throwing” and make the audience even more relaxed.

There were plenty of other pops moments, too. At the end of the theme from “Jaws,” the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus screamed appropriately; electronic effects heightened the openings of the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jurassic Park” and “Star Wars” sequences, while the celeste playing of pianist Claudia Hoca gave an appropriately ethereal quality to the “Harry Potter” material.

Other highlights included Kim’s playing during the Main Theme from “Schindler’s List” and some splendid singing from the chorus during “Dry Your Tears Afrika,” from “Amistad.”

All in all, it was a decent, well-played, entertaining evening with the orchestra. Not bad, guys. Good work.

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