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"French Esprit" was the theme of the evening, as the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra got its 1998-99 season of Classics Concerts under way with works of Berlioz, Faure and Saint-Saens.

Festively and appropriately, French and American flags flanked the stage, which was rimmed in frizzy red, white and blue tulle. Out in the lobby, like-colored bunting flowed everywhere, while slides of paintings by French masters were projected on seven different wall spaces to tie in with the Monet exhibit which the Albright-Knox Art Gallery will offer when it reopens after extensive renovations are completed.

It was good to have former music director Lukas Foss back to conduct this concert, which came to an exciting conclusion, with a cheering, standing ovation for Saint-Saens' famous "Organ" Symphony (No. 3), with Thomas Swan at the console.

Foss and the musicians did their best work here. After a brave but not cohesive opening, the music truly coalesced and took wing in the spatial quietude of the adagio section, arguably the most profoundly beautiful music the composer ever penned.

The following scherzo section was excitingly turbulent and churning, with a well-gauged segue into the majestic final section. After the organ's awakening thunder, rippling pianos underscored the main theme and led to some brilliant and finely balanced brass work, as the closing pages of this sure-fire audience pleaser, despite the upper level dynamics, still brought out the best ensemble sound.

The concert opened with Berlioz's "Le Corsaire" Overture in which all the requisite swagger and verve were there. But the playing was on the heavy side and wanted more of the crispness and clarity of articulation which make this music a true pulse-quickener.

In Faure's Requiem, the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus sang with fine balance and blend. Moments of chamber intimacy were well contrasted against the swelling climaxes in the Introit/Kyrie, there was some fine mezzo-piano a cappella singing in the Offertory, and the concluding In Paradisum was light as it should be.

The soloists were well chosen, with soprano Janice Chandler singing in a pure, vibrant voice and a tendency toward tight enunciation, while baritone Kevin McMillan produced a sound with a thin leading edge and fine focus.

For the most part, however, Faure's lovely music seemed to be allowed to play itself, without much additional help -- the lingering memory is of the basic beauty of Faure's music, not any particular distinctiveness of the performance.

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Lukas Foss.

Featuring soprano Janice Chandler, baritone Kevin McMillan and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus.

Saturday in Kleinhans Music Hall; repeated today at 2:30 p.m.; preconcert talk at 1:30.

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