The BPO is good to go.
That was surely the belief of a lot of Buffalonians after hearing the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra run through the concert it would be presenting on its tour of Poland, now right around the corner. The Saturday night concert drew a big crowd, and the spirit was festive. It's thrilling to think of the excitement this music will soon be generating overseas.
A toast preceded the concert. Mayor Byron Brown proclaimed it Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Day in the City of Buffalo, and then County Executive Mark Poloncarz proclaimed it Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Day in Erie County.
Champagne flowed freely and Jacek Muzyk, the orchestra's Polish-born principal horn player, proclaimed "Na zdrowie." We all know those words from Dyngus Day. Cheers!
The music lived up to that prologue.
The BPO has created a flashy, all-American program with which to impress the Poles. Well, most of it is flashy. The opening piece, Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1, is more retrospective and romantic.
It was first performed by the BPO in 1938, when it was just two years old. It is easy to see what grabbed people even then. The music has a distinctive American sound, and there is a lot of drama to it. BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta led the orchestra through a soul-satisfying performance. There were rich and voluminous crescendos, and space and time for the music to breathe.
Gershwin's Concerto in F, featuring hotshot pianist Conrad Tao, was a whole different animal.
It calls for swagger, and from the start, we got the feeling Tao was the man for the job. The orchestra, too, embraced the piece's jazzy energy.
At intermission, the audience was buzzing about Tao, who has been praised by everyone including NPR and the New York Times. He dresses like a punk, as one woman admiringly put it. He sported cool boots and a short little jacket, in sharp contrast with our musicians' formal tails.
People also did imitations of Tao. You couldn't help it. He sits tightly wound on the piano bench and pounces on the music like a cat. He is jazzed and into it. Which is as it should be. The Concerto in F is more abstract than the "Rhapsody in Blue." You have to sell it.
Tao did. That the performance captivated the crowd is greatly to his credit. We hear this concerto a lot around here, to the extent that we risk getting sick of it. The program said that the last performance on the Classics series was in 2015, and I could swear we have heard it since then. Here, Gershwin's concertos are in danger of being overplayed.
But probably not in Poland, and I can't imagine this not bowling them over. Tao has a fine percussive touch. He hammers away at the piece with flawless staccato energy – I would say like a machine except a machine would not enjoy it so much. The end of the first movement was so tumultuous and perfectly calibrated that the crowd burst into illicit applause. I happily joined in. Hey, why not?
The Andante movement had a bluesy, bittersweet quality. The concluding Allegro brought Tao back to attack mode. The orchestra was with him all the way, and our musicians made their individual voices heard. The music popped and danced, those staccato riffs flying around the orchestra. It had bite, is one way to put it. Things jumped out at you.
The snap-bang ending brought the listeners to their feet. Everyone was happy and shouting. Tao took a number of bows but, mysteriously, played no encore. Perhaps the concert was running long.
I actually think it was. An early deadline made me miss the last piece, the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story." It was tough to leave, because I knew what I was missing. The BPO performed this music a few years ago, in 2014, and I remember how much fun it was. So flashy, so American. I know the orchestra has this down. Take it to Poland and take it to the wall.
The Poland preview repeats at 2:30 p.m. March 11, after which the orchestra will leave for Europe. The Buffalo News will be posting daily updates on how the adventure is going. It is the orchestra's first overseas tour in 30 years and it is looking good.