As revered as Bach is, you don't hear his music much in the concert hall. That's one reason that the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's concert this weekend is worth celebrating.
Another reason is the rare presence of internationally renowned Bach specialist Angela Hewitt.
Hewitt, a master pianist born in Ottawa, Ont., is known to most of us only from her recordings. It is a thrill to see her in person. A graceful woman of great style, she walked out from the wings in a drop-dead sleeveless red gown. Her performance was as striking as her appearance.
She is playing two concertos that even casual classical music fans might recognize. The first is Bach's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D, BWV 1054. It is better known as a violin concerto, but is thrilling on the piano, too. The second is Bach's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, BWV 1052.
Ranking among Bach's "greatest hits," this D Minor concerto has an infectious joy, not to mention an infectious beat, almost like rock. You could see people tapping their feet and nodding their heads. This piece was a favorite of former BPO Music Director Lukas Foss, who played it on his last visit to Buffalo, some 10 or 12 years ago. It is a favorite of a lot of people.
Both concertos have lovely Adagio movements with a misty, rather eerie, sleepwalking feel. If you have never heard Bach, you should give this concert a try. You would most likely love it.
Hewitt plays Bach with unapologetic modern style on a Steinway concert grand. The excitement began before she even appeared, as stagehands reconfigured the stage for a smaller orchestra, an orchestra of strings, that was to accompany her. "I've never seen anything like this," I heard someone whisper.
In another unusual touch, Hewitt conducts from the keyboard. We don't see this much.
She has a light, almost whimsical manner - embellishing lightly, dancing over the keys, her articulation clear and crystalline. At the same time, she brings out the muscle of the music, its intrinsic excitement. Pilates instructors tell you to keep your core strong and still, and that pretty much sums up Hewitt's approach. She sits perfectly still on the bench, and her arms move swan-like, like the arms of a ballet dancer. The strength comes from within.
An usher told me that he had been forbidden to open the doors to anyone once Hewitt's performance had begun. I could understand that. She is playing and conducting from memory, and a disturbance could throw her off. All the musicians on stage seemed to share an intense concentration, and the audience was drawn into it. There was also a sense of enjoyment that was catching. You had to smile as Hewitt wrapped up both concertos with a smile and a sweep of her arms.
The good-sized crowd Saturday loved it, responding with a standing ovation. Hewitt acknowledged the ovation with an encore, a witty solo piece that had to be Bach.
Resident Conductor Stefan Sanders began the concert by conducting Mendelssohn's "Hebrides Overture," also known as "Fingal's Cave." I loved this 10-minute gem as a teenager. I still do, and Sanders and the BPO gave it just the right luminous touch.
Sanders ended the concert with Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5, the "Reformation." Because of my deadline I couldn't hear the entire thing, but I could tell that the orchestra was approaching the piece with great attentiveness. Sanders showed great attention to detail, no one was on autopilot, and all the musicians who had been obliged to sit out the Bach were making up for lost time. I wish I could have stuck around to hear that climactic "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." I'll bet it brought the house down.
The concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. today in Kleinhans Music Hall.