The fanfarish opening and festive demeanor of Tchaikovsky's Polonaise from the 1879 opera "Eugene Onegin" made a fine tone-setter for the Buffalo Philharmonic's weekend concerts, marketed under the banner "Russian Thunder."
But the real thunder was saved for the concluding work, with JoAnn Falletta leading the BPO and pianist Cecile Licad in the famous 1909 Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, known familiarly as "Rach 3."
Its melancholy character was firmly established in the orchestral opening, followed by a solo piano reverie that Licad played with a clean, bright tone and sensitive articulation of the lyrical lines, exceptionally communicative in the concerto's more introspective moments.
Licad's technique was effortlessly secure, but she didn't try to overpower the work. Rather, she emersed herself in its progress, putting musical values ahead of flamboyant bravura. There was room enough for that in the stormy cadenza she unleashed, to the delight of the audience.
The slow movement delved even more deeply into heart-weary melancholy, with a generous early statement by the solo piano, and an accumulation of passionate power that all but wept at its climax.
Even though the real thunder emerged in the final movement, punctuated by poignant interludes of quietude, musical values remained in the forefront as the music gathered a great, rolling momentum that projected a clear resolution, if not optimism, even with the minor key thrust.
Yes, the piano seemed a bit brittle in the upper register and it was occasionally engulfed by the orchestra. But that doesn't change the conviction that Licad, Falletta and the BPO were equal partners in a compelling and convincing journey through this Rachmaninoff masterpiece.
Anatoly Liadov's "The Enchanted Lake," written the same year as "Rach 3," is a captivating little tone poem in which shimmering strings, distant horn calls and quietly warbling flutes evoked pastoral and placid water scenes. This little gem came as a soothing contrast to the surrounding thunder, a lull in the storm, and the orchestra's pianissimo playing was nothing short of exquisite.
The concert also included Stravinsky's 1942-45 Symphony in Three Movements, a blocky sort of work that seems to proceed episodically, introspectively, but above all spontaneously. The enigmatic composer declared that the symphony had no program, but then admitted that the third movement was a reaction to a newsreel of goose-stepping soldiers (listen for the strutting bassoons).
Falletta gave the opening brass motif enough of a dynamic whomp to reinforce the thunder image, then kept the music's disparate elements clearly enough defined to hold one's attention and to illuminate the music's structure. The movement's slow, repetitive rhythmic pulse against flowing melodic ideas made a fine contrast with the more brash outermovements. It was a revelatory performance of a sometimes difficult work.
In a last-minute change, Falletta and the BPO prefaced the program with a performance of the "Evening Prayer" from Humperdinck's opera "Hansel and Gretel," in memory of Pope John Paul II, who had died six hours earlier.