Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Maximiano Valdes, conductor; Pascal Roge, guest pianist
Friday evening in the Center for the Arts, UB North Campus; repeated tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., with preconcert talks one hour before each
Even with a strong French slant, the content of this weekend's Philharmonic concerts is widely varied, from the loose-limbed lyricism of Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 5 to the velvet textures of Chausson's Symphony in B flat, with "Bamboula Beach" by American Charles Wuorinen as an engaging jump-start for the concert.
Pascal Roge has recorded all five Saint-Saens piano concertos and is probably the only international touring artist actively championing his Concerto No. 5, subtitled "Egyptian" for its Egyptian/Arab borrowings. It is a strangely laid-back work, even in much of the molto allegro finale.
Roge proved an ideal interpreter of this music because he placed himself entirely at its service, to an almost self-effacing degree.
Despite its expressive "allegro animato" marking, the first movement seems more a rambling, gentle rumination. Roge played with an exceptionally fluid sense of line and a light touch that was so carefully gauged that it never once suggested that the music was delicate, just pensive and exploring.
After a rather stern opening, the slow movement was even more gentle. It contains the more obvious Egyptian references, and a passage in the piano whose chordal intervals are so wide and empty-sounding, almost twangy, that it momentarily seemed almost like a "prepared" piano.
He spun the movement out as patterns of delicate tracery drawn deftly together by his single-minded concentration and very impressive playing in a quietly poetic way that implied, rather than exhibited, his extraordinary technique.
The finale comes closest to bravura, with an attractive and memorable main theme, sinuous string phrases, a flowing, rippling character in its lyric lines, and a modest clamor at the end. Here, as elsewhere, Roge, Valdes and the orchestra seemed in fine synch.
Saint-Saens' emotional palette ranges from sadness to elan. Don't expect grief or passion from this composer. The artists understood this and, as a result, gave the discursive concerto an elegant nonchalance that suited it perfectly.
Valdes and the orchestra brought to the Chausson Symphony precisely the fine, tight-knit ensemble cohesion on which this purple and bronze music thrives. There were a couple of imprecise attacks, but the fluid motion of its lyric lines and articulate detailing of the inner voices kept the first movement's structure clear and its message communicative.
The slow movement was shaped very well, its increasing tensions well-sculptured for a strong climax. And in the "Anime" final movement, the energy was well-controlled while, again, there was some succulent, pungent interior wind playing in passages of moderate dynamic level.
The brass chorale was very stately and warm, leading to a serene, then radiant peroration projected with excellent balances and tonal weighting.
The concert had opened with Wuorinen's free-wheeling "Bamboula Beach," written for the first concert by Michael Tilson Thomas' Miami-based New World Symphony Orchestra and suffused with Latin influences to reflect its locale.
Wuorinen is serious about every musical utterance, but this one still gets a bit raucous and irreverent in its jangling, ambling, percussion-fueled gait.
Resident composer David Felder describes it as a seven-minute miniconcerto for orchestra. In fact, it does give fleeting prominence to just about every instrument, with a steel drum ambience asserting itself near the end and a simple Latin tune leading to a lightening of its previously dense textures.
An improvised surprise is saved for the final fillip.