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Music of three composers ranges from romantic to spiritually evocative

This weekend's Buffalo Philharmonic concert was designed by music director JoAnn Falletta with a lot of unifying features, the least of which would be that Rossini, Rachmaninoff and Respighi could be marketed as the "Three Rs."

The major unifying link was in the mastery of orchestration of the three composers. This was most subtly exhibited in Rachmaninoff's 1934 "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," a marvelous amalgam of theme and variations for piano and orchestra that saucily opens by presenting the first variation before the piano steps up to state the theme.

Saturday's performance by pianist William Wolfram, Falletta and the BPO highlighted the subtle structure of the work's spontaneous, uncalculated succession of variations, many of which flow together so naturally that you hardly recognize the change from one to the next.

Wolfram played with a deftness of touch, fine articulation, and a superb sense of lineal interchange with the orchestra.

But Wolfram did speak out with compelling eloquence in such variations as the wistful and beguiling No. 12 (Tempo di menuetto) and the most famous of all, No. 18 (Andante cantabile), whose tender romantic sweep has given it a life of its own, something the performers proved by repeating it at the end as an encore.

Rachmaninoff was always a good orchestrator, but in his late works, beginning with this Rhapsody, he upped the ante and became one of the 20th century's great orchestral colorists.

The superb lyrical and dynamic balances sustained by Wolfram, Falletta and the orchestra illustrated the composer's mastery and produced a coherent vision of the entire musical canvas. Even in the opening Overture to "The Turk in Italy" by Rossini, the introductory horn solo, summoning trumpet passages and short decorative string figurations were a bit audacious for 1814.

Two works by Respighi increased the intensity of the color palette even more. In the three-movement 1928 "Brazilian Impressions," the opening "Tropical Night" was spare, open and luminous, with languid themes of long, winding character and exquisite tonal modulations at the end. "Butantan" used a wonderfully slithering contrabassoon solo to introduce impressions of a reptile institute Respighi had visited, and the suite concluded with the uncomplicated and carefree "Song and Dance," full of more traditional Brazilian rhythms.

The concert concluded with Respighi's 1927 "Church Windows," which is both spiritually evocative and a dynamite sonic showpiece. The spirituality is evident in rampant use of medieval church modal scales, with references to such well known tunes as "O Come Emmanuel." The coloration ranged from radiant and lush in the opening "Flight Into Egypt" to sweeping riots of bombast in "St. Michael the Archangel."

The reflective "Matins of St. Clare" presented an interlude of prayerful, consoling beauty prior to the tumultuous concluding "St. Gregory the Great," a cataclysmic paean of praise with an organ interlude and the full orchestra in full glory at the exciting climax.

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