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JoAnn Falletta's choice of a program for this season-opening concert was locked in place months before the cataclysm that struck our country and the world Sept. 11.

But as further evidence of the charmed life that Falletta leads, it turns out that a program specially tailored as an artistic response to today's circumstances could not have been better than the one she had already chosen.

In concluding the concert with Beethoven's famous Symphony No. 9 ("Choral"), a great statement was made about our craving for the universal brotherhood.

And in prefacing Beethoven's great "Ode to Joy" with a suite from Bartok's ballet "The Miraculous Mandarin," the program made a countering statement that cries out in pain about the evil forces that would crush that brotherhood. The ballet's story is of a Chinese mandarin fixated on a beautiful young prostitute. He pays her, then is robbed and savagely beaten by thugs, but he simply will not die until the girl has taken pity and embraced him.

This concert was about our great loss. Consequently, up front Falletta added, as "a musical offering of comfort, consolation and renewed hope," a performance of Elgar's "Nimrod" Variation. Elgar's original expressive marking for this music is "Nobilmente," and its majesty, spirituality and radiantly sad beauty could not have been better suited to the state of the world. The minute's silence afterward was an unspoken amen.

Bartok's suite from "The Miraculous Mandarin" is a brilliantly colorful score, swirling, jabbing and cacophonous, full of musical sarcasm and snide commentary in its sneering trumpets and trombone glissandi. The performance not only captured all this but also highlighted the music's quieter moments such as the wonderful clarinet ruminations over a pedal in the low strings. In the context of today, I'm sure the music's message was heard and appreciated by many who otherwise might not get beyond Bartok's dissonant textures.

In Beethoven's mighty "Choral" Symphony, the orchestra was augmented. I counted 58 strings on stage, and they made their presence thrillingly felt in the last movement's expository passages while searching for a new theme to scale the heights.

The first movement was crisp and clearly defined, with searing timpani rolls so dramatic they diminished the punch of the following Scherzo, whose timpani salvos are usually a milepost in performances of the Ninth.

The serene Adagio movement flowed smoothly, with a serenity and poise all the more moving because of its position between the boisterous Scherzo and the Olympian choral Finale to follow.

And in that Finale, Falletta marshaled her forces superbly, achieving in climactic moments a raw, unbridled power that nobody could miss. The solo quartet of soprano Regina Zona, mezzo Melissa Thorburn, tenor Gary Seydell and baritone Brian Zunner sang as a unified ensemble, while the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, prepared by Dale Adelmann, outdid itself with overarching, thrillingly pealing attacks and a power and exciting pulse just right for the occasion.

Details here and there may have been a bit askew, but this was quite the best Beethoven JoAnn Falletta has given us yet.


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