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Sibelius puts BPO concert over the top

Now that's what you call a symphony.

That's all anyone could think Friday at Kleinhans Music Hall, as the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra brought Sibelius' Second to a glorious close. Christopher Wilkins, our guest conductor, stood with arms outstretched, as if swimming on the sea of sound. Then the final chords, billowing, filled the hall. Hundreds of listeners leapt, shouting, to their feet.

Standing ovations are nothing rare here in Buffalo. But you know it's something special when you hear those shouts. "Bravo!" "Bravo!" It just kept going.

Whatever you are in the mood for this weekend, the BPO has it. The concert's centerpiece is a rarely heard piano concerto by British composer John Ireland, encompassing every imaginable harmony and mood. The program begins with German Romanticism, the overture to "Der Freischutz" by Carl Maria von Weber.

This is all the kind of music that is transfixing to watch as well as to hear. Wilkins, too, brings his own excitement to the occasion. He is an expressive conductor. He sells you on the music.

The Weber overture began in an enchanting light. Wilkins allowed for a few moments of silence before easing into the music's ethereal start. Then the music unfurled gradually. It was like watching someone flying a kite, giving it line bit by bit.

Weber was a not-so-distant cousin of Mozart's wife, and the influence of his famous in-law appears in his work. But the music also has a transparent grace that is particularly Weber's. The BPO musicians shined in this delicate setting. The horns, famous in this overture, were a highlight.

John Ireland's Piano Concerto, completed in 1930, was a BPO premiere. It is being performed by a British pianist, Mark Bebbington, who champions obscure British piano music. If you are going to the May 13 concert, check out Bebbington's socks. On Friday, they were red. I hear that splashy socks are a kind of secret thing among the Brits.

Could it be that splashy piano music is, too? It's intriguing that this heated concerto was dreamed up by John Ireland, who otherwise is known to the world mostly for a couple of hymns.

There is a lot of gentle beauty in this work. The beginning is gracious and lovely. So are interludes that had Bebbington playing a duet with Dennis Kim, the BPO's concertmaster. But there is also a lot of pizzazz. There is actually a lot of everything. You get Gershwin in the jazzy orchestration, Rachmaninoff in the crashing chords. Angular lines suggested Stravinsky. A sort of jazz march made me think of Shostakovich. To top things off, scholars have likened this piece to Ravel's G major concerto, though pointing out that this concerto came first.

That is a lot to cram into 23 minutes, and the result is kind of nervous and overwhelming. Bebbington played from a score, for which no one could blame him. The fits and starts, the mercurial harmonies, even the intricate pedaling ... how do you get this in your head?

Things can get wearying by the last movement. Mostly, though, it was enjoyable, and fascinating in its way. It also beat hearing one of those Gershwin concertos yet again. Bravo to everyone involved with this performance. Everyone earned it.

Everyone also earned those shouts of "Bravo" in the Sibelius. Wilkins, who clearly knows how to pace things and build a drama, held the thunder until the right moments. There was a tremendous fullness of sound.

Contrasts abounded among the tissue-thin woodwinds, the scampering strings, and the blasts of the brass, often presented almost side by side. The bass section playing pizzicato, the warmth of the cellos, the thump of the timpani -- the thrills of this symphony never end.

Things built up perfectly to that amazing finale. That theme swirling through the orchestra, Wilkins' arms high over his head -- it all added up to something as impressive for its engineering as for its emotion. No wonder the crowd couldn't stop shouting.

This whirl of a concert repeats at 8 p.m. May 13.

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