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Cathedral celebrates with a fanfare, piano concerto

St. Joseph Cathedral is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and is celebrating with a series of special events.

Tuesday, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra began the festivities with a concert of Gabrieli, Bach and Respighi.

Largely unpublicized, the concert was free, but you needed a ticket to get in. Over the last month, it quietly became the hottest ticket in town.

Why all the interest? Well, the colorful program included three brass fanfares by Gabrieli and ended with Respighi's little-heard "Church Windows," perfect for the ethereal setting. In the middle was Bach's popular Piano Concerto No. 1, with Father Sean Duggan on piano.

Duggan, a recent addition to the Fredonia State College faculty and a new star on the local music scene, has been making a splash with his just-begun Fredonia recital series of Bach's complete keyboard works.

This was, then, a great chance to hear Duggan in Buffalo. It also provided a sneak preview of "Church Windows," which the BPO is said to be recording on an upcoming Naxos disc. On top of all that was the privilege of joining in the cathedral's anniversary festivities.

Happily, the concert lived up to expectations.

To be honest, the acoustics of the sky-high, white and gold church weren't kind to the Bach. From the back, parts of the piece were a blur. Duggan also had to compete with the sounds of summer in the city. During the romantic slow movement, a bus stopped by the church's front door and let out a big psssssssssss.

But you could tell Duggan's playing was excellent -- fluid, confident and controlled. He nailed every note, with ease and excitement, and at top speed, too. BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta took the first and last movements at thrilling, racehorse tempos.

The slow movement, too, had a sense of purpose, its haunting, hesitant theme unfolding with a passion that could make you think of Romantic piano works. (That grand piano produces a sound Bach never dreamed of, but it would be such a pity not to use it.)

If the church's acoustics fought the Bach, they embraced the Gabrieli works for brass that began the night. For the "Canzon septimi toni No. 1," "Sonata piane forte" and "Canzon septimi toni No. 2," half the brass players were stationed in the front, and half in the organ loft. The effect was shining, festive and strong.

Respighi's "Church Windows" brought the house down.

The piece began reverently, if moodily, with Mary and Joseph's quiet flight contrasting with the threatening might of King Herod. We heard ghostly hints of medieval handbells, of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."

Then, gradually, it built to an awesome cascade of sound. The music grew, echoing deafeningly in the polished church, and then, on top of everything else, that magnificently refurbished 1876 Hook organ blasted at us from the back. The towering tribute to St. Gregory the Great, built on the joyous, familiar Gloria from the Mass of the Angels, pealed forth with overwhelming force.

When the piece crashed to a close, people jumped up and cheered, for minutes on end. As the crowd poured out, it felt like a rock concert. People were shouting. The church bells were ringing. God love St. Joseph Cathedral, 150 years young. It really shook up this summer night.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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