Saturday, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra dedicated Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto to the victims of the recent airline crash and their families. This is the sort of piece that is good for something like that. As Music Director JoAnn Falletta put it in a brief speech, the music is intensely spiritual.
For this occasion, Andre Watts was the perfect pianist.
Watts plays as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. He walks out on stage with hardly a glance at the audience -- that's his style, and he pulls it off. He wears the old-fashioned tails, which I love. He sits down heavily on the piano bench, brow furrowed, head down.
His performance Saturday was deeply satisfying. It was the culmination of a program that tended toward gravity, although there were moments of light. Opening the program was "A Prayer for Spring," by the young Amherst composer Chris Rogerson, currently a student at the Curtis Institute. Bravo to him for creating a piece people could enjoy on first hearing. This five-minute piece charmed.
It had a recurring motif that began the piece and then was tossed around the orchestra. Rogerson has a flair for using the instruments' various colors -- the woodwinds shone, and a discreet piano part, too, added to the spectrum. It could make you think of film music, John Williams in particular. At the end of it, I heard someone saying he wished it were longer. That is high and rare praise in the world of contemporary music.
Excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet" followed. This was a wonderfully uncompromising performance, full of dark drama. The first doom-filled chords were jarring and terrible, and trombones, saxophone, horns and tuba went in to contribute ferocious tones. It was thrilling.
Lovely in contrast were the light-hearted sections, where the interplay among flutes and other woodwinds was impeccably timed. But with the Death of Tybalt, we were back in the darkness again. People were so carried away they applauded before the piece was over. I wonder if Watts, overhearing all this backstage, built on the brooding mood. His Beethoven was full of shadows. Even in the first movement, playing those twinkly passages in the high treble, he gave every note weight and import. He emphasized the rhythms and accents. You could see him -- and sometimes hear him -- stamping his feet.
He ignored the scattered applause at the end of the first movement. Squarely in the zone, he launched the caressing passages that begin the second. This is music Beethoven designed to draw tears out of you, and it was especially affecting in the hands of this introverted artist. The orchestra was with him. The later return of the theme, backed by the flutes, was cathartic and beautiful.
Watts handled the transition to the finale beautifully, giving nothing away. Blasting into the third movement, he didn't exactly crank it. Instead, he created the illusion of volume, leaning into the accents. He is a great Beethoven player -- not too much pedal or too much noise. He knocked it back at key moments and paced the crescendos skillfully, keeping the audience right there with him. Jesse Kregal handled the timpani-anchored coda -- a trick Beethoven borrowed from Mozart -- with tremendous finesse.
The last notes of this mighty team effort drew the listeners to their feet.