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BPO program of Corigliano works is both challenging, entertaining

The celebrated composer John Corigliano is back in town, introducing his music at an unusual Classics concert this weekend in Kleinhans Music Hall.

Corigliano and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra are getting to be old friends. He was here two seasons ago, and the BPO's recording of his song cycle "Mr. Tambourine Man," set to the words of Bob Dylan, was just released on the Naxos label.

This weekend, two Corigliano works are on the program. The first is "Phantasmagoria on 'The Ghosts of Versailles,' " extracted from the opera Corigliano wrote in 1991 for the Metropolitan Opera.

The second is the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra nicknamed "The Red Violin," after the movie score Corigliano wrote.

JoAnn Falletta, the BPO's music director, is conducting, and Concertmaster Michael Ludwig is the soloist. Together, the two Corigliano works added up to just over an hour of music -- quite a challenge for the audience. The night ended with Beethoven's exuberant Second Symphony.

Corigliano is the picture of charm. Last time he was here he told The News about how his opera, "The Ghosts of Versailles," made him nervous enough that he went out of his way riding his bike around Manhattan so as not to have to pass the opera house. I loved that.

Saturday, he walked out on stage in a leather jacket and explained the pieces we would be hearing.

Without the personal touch, I do not know if the audience Saturday would have enjoyed his music as much as it apparently did.

A Corigliano creation is not easy to digest. The "Phantasmagoria" began with a disorienting buzz -- his was the world of the ghosts we were in, the composer had said -- and descended into further chaos.

There were bits of "The Barber of Seville" and of "Se Vuol Ballare" from "The Marriage of Figaro." A gentle brass stretch made me think of Copland. The last section took us back to the French Revolution. It was an idea similar to the opera "Dialogues of the Carmelites," with a chorale in the foreground, the guillotine in the background. The Violin Concerto was a display of virtuosity on Ludwig's part. The things he was required to do! Memorizing the piece was out of the question. Clearly just getting through this piece is challenge enough. Lightning-quick double-stop gymnastics sustained romantic phrases sparked with showers of pizzicato, light-as-a-feather passages with the bow barely skipping on the strings.

In keeping with the theme of "The Red Violin," Ludwig was playing a honeyed, 1735 Guarneri and I am sure in all its long life, the violin never experienced anything like this.

A master orchestrator, Corigliano is able to coax surprising sounds from the soloist and the other instruments. There were whistles, jingles, shrieks, sounds like gunshots.

It was an experience, and the audience ate it up, with a standing ovation. Beethoven's Second ended the night on an up note.

I personally like the slow introduction slower, but that's me.

The second movement was sublime, almost weightless.

The finale was the highlight. Falletta and her forces made the most of those flirtatious back-and-forth games Beethoven loves to play: major to minor, forte to piano, one key to another. What a study in contrasts this whole program was.

The adventure repeats at 2:30 p.m. today.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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