This is one of Maximiano Valdes' best-designed programs of the season, one dwelling in the regions of dark beauty so compellingly evoked in the music of Brahms and peaking with his sublime "German Requiem."
But it opened with a performance of the "Tragic Overture." Its two punched-out opening chords came through as terse, meaty quotation marks. Valdes and the orchestra applied a steady pressure, and the music had admirable consistency of character. This made the contrasting lyrical theme all the more beguiling in its attempts to offer an island of respite, only to yield at the end to pathos and a repeat of those quotation marks.
The brief first half of the concert also included Brahms' rarely heard "Naenie" for chorus and orchestra. It deals with such sentiments as the death of beauty, and joined with the "Tragic Overture" to make a wonderfully apt pair of companion pieces to the "German Requiem," which I don't recall hearing before.
The UB program had neither explanatory notes nor text and translation for "Naenie," which were much needed.
The quiet opening of "Naenie" needed a little more positive support, but Valdes quickly firmed the line and music's unique mix of sadness and bittersweet melancholy was well projected and also served as a non-literal preview or forecast of the "Requiem."
The pianissimo choral entrance in the "Requiem" was a breathless moment, and all forces went on to sculpt the opening section with firm lines and an unmistakable feeling of textural solidity.
In the second section, "For All Flesh," the two crescendos over the steady thump of the timpani were developed slowly and with a good sense of drama. When the second climax was capped with the exultant shout "But the word of the Lord" it was triumphant.
Brahms' "Requiem" is not set to the traditional requiem liturgy, but is based on biblical texts aimed at consoling the bereaved, not salvation of the soul of the deceased.
The tone of Brahms' music as interpreted by Valdes and his musicians mirrored this spirit every step of the way.
Particularly compelling was soprano Ollie Watts Davis in the fifth section, "Ye Now Have Sorrow." Her voice has a fine, pure quality, with just a faint suggestion of throatiness giving it both body and a live quality without being over-vibrant or husky. She sustained and shaped the beautiful melodic lines with ease and an exquisite sense of voice placement, which made the vocal line seem inarguably "right."
Baritone Kevin McMillan's voice was clear and clean, with excellent diction. At times it seemed to want a bit more warmth and a stronger low register. But in the penultimate section, the warmth was there.
The chorus and orchestra achieved a fine balance. The massed voices sounded especially appealing in the central chorus, "How Lovely Are Thy Dwelling Places," where Valdes' gently lilting approach gave a particularly human feeling to the line. Later, accents on the words "mein," "Leib" and "Seele" seemed excessively punchy, and in a few instances, the chorus's diction was cloudy, but in transmitting the spirit of the music, there was never any doubt.
The final chorus, "Blessed Are the Dead," was superbly contoured by chorus and orchestra to a serene conclusion, leaving the idea that this chorus was an encapsulation of the whole conciliatory philosophy of Brahms' "Requiem."
Maximiano Valdes conducting, with soprano Ollie Watts Davis, baritone Kevin McMillan and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, prepared by Thomas Swan
Friday evening on the Mainstage, Center for the Arts, University at Buffalo North Campus; repeat performances at 8 tonight and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Kleinhans Music Hall, with preconcert talks by Valdes