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Tuning up, tuning in The Buffalo Philharmonic opens a new season with new conductors, new challenges, new artists -- and a program tailored to please

Saturday, when Johnny Mathis joins the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for the first of the orchestra's 2009-10 pops concerts, Buffalo will see a new conductor on the podium.

He is Matthew Kraemer, who succeeds the departing Robert Franz. Franz left Buffalo to become music director of the Boise Philharmonic.

For the last two years, Kraemer has been working with BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta at the Virginia Symphony, where she is also music director.

"He has done a great job. We were all a little ambivalent in Virginia about him leaving. We rely on him," she says. "But he told me from the beginning, I really want to live in Buffalo. He did a concert here. It just seemed like a good fit."

Another conductor, too, will soon be gracing the podium of Kleinhans Music Hall. That would be Joseph Young, who is here for a year on a prestigious fellowship sponsored by the League of American Orchestras.

"This is a big deal for him," Falletta says. "There are only five orchestras in this program." (The others are Cleveland, San Diego, Houston and Baltimore.) "It's a very big deal," Falletta exults. "These are very gifted conductors just starting their professional careers."

The two new conductors will add excitement to a season that already has a note of novelty.

The pops season that begins Saturday has expanded to include a few special events designed to draw in a wide audience. Thursday brings a tribute concert to singer/songwriter James Taylor. Folk singer Richie Havens appears Oct. 22. And a big crowd is expected to turn out Oct. 8, when the BPO welcomes pop pianist Ben Folds.

In November, Buffalo will celebrate the return of a native. Michael Christie, the much-talked-about music director of the Phoenix Symphony, will be conducting the second of two concerts of Viennese music.

This late-romantic repertoire is the kind of music for which the BPO has become world-renowned. Scheduled for release Sept. 29 is the Philharmonic's latest CD on the Naxos label. The disc is of music from two Richard Strauss operas: a suite from the glittering, bittersweet "Der Rosenkavalier" and the Symphonic Fantasy on "Die Frau Ohne Schatten ("The Woman Without a Shadow"). Rounding out the CD is the rarely heard Symphonic Fragment from "Josephs Legende" ("The Legend of Joseph").

"I think it is the best thing we've ever done," Falletta says. "Three Strauss tone poems. The orchestra is playing at unbelievable levels."

The Classics season begins Oct. 3 with a gala concert featuring Gil Shaham and his wife, Adele Anthony, playing Bach's sublime Double Violin concerto. The concert closes with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which ends in the triumphant "Ode to Joy," sung by the mighty Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus.

>Tuned in to audience

These are trying times for arts organizations locally, including the BPO.

This season, the budget is $9.9 million, down from $10.7 million the previous season. Seven administrative positions were recently cut. A lavish multimedia exploration of Wagner's "Ring" Cycle scheduled for the past spring had to be shelved. And the musicians' latest three-year contract, approved in early August, saw the season shrink from 39 weeks to 37 weeks.

The orchestra seeks to minimize losses and fill the seats by keeping careful track of what its audience wants to hear.

"We are always trying to gather information on what people like," says Daniel Hart, the BPO's executive director. "We try to do it with pops, too. We have audience surveys and Internet surveys. We're trying to pay attention to what people are thinking, how they experience music."

Hart admires how Falletta responds to the audience's tastes.

"She is masterful at how she's tuned in to the audience," Hart says. "She'll take a chance when she can and challenge the audience, but she is careful to present challenges that are acceptable to the audience, that are embraced by the audience."

The upcoming season shows Falletta's ongoing attempt to design concerts that explore new horizons, while at the same time strike a chord with the people who support the orchestra. It amounts to a delicate balancing act.

"I want our orchestra always to be open-minded in what we present," Falletta says. "Our audience is so open to the BPO. They come in with ears wide open, willing to experiment.

"I look back and see what we haven't done. As the orchestra for the whole region, we have to be very conscious of having a menu that covers the gamut."

The BPO has gained renown by exploring largely forgotten gems of music from the past, by composers including Marcel Tyberg and Josef Suk. One Naxos disk was devoted to the music of the Romantic Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, whose "Botticelli Tryptich" the BPO will be playing in December.

"There is so much great music out there that's spectacular," says Hart. "JoAnn tries to reach into the vast repertoire out there, to find neglected pieces and make them into exciting projects."

Oct. 17 brings Rachmaninoff's First Piano Concerto. The Rachmaninoff First, though a glorious work with a passionate slow movement, is not very well-known. Until now, the BPO has never performed it.

"I fell in love with it," Falletta says. "It's his Opus 1. Imagine doing the Opus 1 of a composer like Rachmaninoff. It has all Rachmaninoff's fingerprints on it."

The Rachmaninoff shares the bill with a contemporary piece, Kenneth Fuchs' "An American Place." Falletta's Naxos recording of Fuchs' bright-timbred music with the London Symphony earned a Grammy nomination.

"I like eclectic programs," Falletta says. "I like things that surprise people. I like things they've never heard. One of the best compliments I can get is when someone tells me, 'I don't understand why people don't hear that more often.' "

>Beauty and tragedy

The two November concerts called "Viennese Masters" include music by Johann Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg and Kreisler, in addition to music by Joseph Marx, not exactly a household name.

"That is exciting," Falletta says. "That repertoire is so beautiful. And those three short pieces by Fritz Kreisler, they bespeak another era."

Christie, conducting the second of the Viennese concerts, will lead the orchestra in a relative rarity -- an arrangement of six of Schubert's German Dances by the 20th century composer Anton Webern.

Another concert features Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. It pushes the audience to revisit a dark time and place in history, the Soviet Union under Stalin.

"The Shostakovich Fifth was a trademark of the BPO under Semyon Bychkov, but it's a piece we don't do very often," Falletta says. "It's a piece of incredible tragedy and incredible heroism."

The Philharmonic's creative approach surfaces also in the season's soloists. Because the biggest-name artists command top fees, the BPO tries to balance them out with emerging soloists who convey excitement and rich musicianship.

Performing the Rachmaninoff concerto will be Lebanese pianist Abdel Rahman El-Bacha, who is better known in Europe than America. "He absolutely loves this piece," Falletta says.

Rising cello star Allison Eldredge, in December, will be playing the Second Cello Concerto by Victor Herbert. And Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich will be here in November to play Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23.

"He's very young but incredibly gifted," Falletta says. "We're always on the lookout for new artists."

-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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