This weekend's Buffalo Philharmonic concerts offer three works, each quite important in different ways. Pride of place in reportage, however, goes to the world premiere of "City of Light," a clarinet concerto by Buffalo-based composer Persis Vehar.
The soloist was BPO principal John Fullam, who suggested to Vehar the idea for this three-movement work, recalling steps that Buffalo took in going from candles to gas light to the full electric emblazonment of the 1901 Pan American Exposition.
There are some very gratifying touches in this work, including sotto voce circling figures in the first movement, the solo clarinet's Gregorian chant to open the second, which also includes a passage for clarinet with horn-led orchestral partnership in a layered effect, some superb pianissimo passages, and the close of the concerto where a high clarinet tone pulls the orchestra up into a satisfying E-flat major chord.
For the most part, however, it's an overly nervous work in which the orchestra writing too often seems characterless and reticent to provide anything other than halfhearted support for the clarinet's impressive, difficult gymnastics and extended techniques such as multiphonics, bent tones and glissandi.
The idea for "City of Light" was sound, but the emotional output in performance did not fulfill the promise that the composer's ingenious intellectual approach held out.
The concert had opened with a Buffalo premiere, the Intermezzo from the 1902 opera "Notre Dame" by the much underrated Viennese composer Franz Schmidt. It's hard to believe that this gorgeous music, derived from gypsy sources but radiating a sublime, rich beauty that far transcends its origins, is the first Schmidt work ever heard in Kleinhans. The performance under JoAnn Falletta brought out all of its aching beauty and lush textures. Now we need to hear Schimdt's incomparably elegiac Symphony No. 4, written in 1933 after the death of a beloved daughter.
The concert's piece de resistance was Carl Orff's 1937 scenic cantata, "Carmina Burana," for chorus, soloists and orchestra. This is music that even the novice listener can understand and take to heart on first hearing.
Its collection of ancient student and tavern songs of lust, love and positive human response to life's travails was set by Orff with an admixture of visceral excitement and heart-wrenching, simple beauty. It is music of such pounding rhythms, simple melodies and raw excitement that Falletta was often seen jumping up and down on the podium as if to emphasize its propulsiveness. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, prepared by L. Brett Scott, sang with magnificent crispness, bite and full body. Baritone Richard Zeller, tenor Andrew Skoog and soprano Esther Heidman were superb in the characterization of their often bizarre roles.
Falletta held everything together with magnificent snap, ideal pacing and an overriding excitement that brought a chorus of audience bravos at the end.