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Chances are, Mathis made you misty with his pure, sweet tones

You have to wonder how many singers over the years quit when they heard Johnny Mathis. That weirdly beautiful voice, they must have thought, could only be a gift from God. And the way Mathis has polished it!

Saturday at Kleinhans Music Hall, Mathis joined the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra to serenade a packed house. Singing without a break for a generous set, he poured out hit after hit -- "Chances Are," "You Make Me Feel Brand New," etc. -- and reassured us that his marvelous pipes are holding up well. He looks a little on the frail side, and seeing him at first, I worried. A couple of songs, though, and Mathis was himself. He had his bearings. He was king.

It boggles the mind, what he can do. As he sang the simple, folksy "The Twelfth of Never," alone with a guitar, I found myself staring at him, marveling. His voice isn't deep or particularly rich, and his dynamic range is not very wide -- even his vocal range, high to low, isn't something he shows off. But his voice has that clear, rounded purity. It is also distinctly his, and he has his unique way of making it shine.

Such a treat, to hear him in the pristine acoustics of Kleinhans. In "Misty," Mathis came out of the bridge of the song onto a high note no one expected, and brought the melody down from there. The whole hall seemed to sigh.

You won't hear exciting piano with Mathis. His pianist, Scott Lavender, plays the kind of Patsy Cline piano that you hear on the singer's records. But Lavender did a good enough job of keeping the orchestra and Mathis' combo together. The songs lend themselves well to this kind of collaboration, and the arrangements were occasionally witty. (In "Misty," when they got to the line "a thousand violins begin to play," you heard those violins.)

"And Her Mother Came Too" showcased Mathis' impeccable timing and quiet charm as well as another fine quality, his sense of enjoyment. Mathis has sung that song millions of times, and as he told us wryly, "You know how it ends." After all this time, though, he still gets a kick out of the song, and the punch line at the end. You can tell. A tribute to "Kismet" including "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" and "Stranger in Paradise" was frankly and gloriously retro. And the audience went wild for a loud, energetic Brazilian set ending in "Black Orpheus."

The Philharmonic's new associate conductor, Matthew Kraemer, began his first season here with the first half of Saturday's concert. He led the orchestra in "God Bless America," Leroy Anderson's "Serenata" and a lovely medley from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess. " In between was a breathless Duke Ellington medley that must have given us 20 numbers in five minutes. What a kick. Speaking of which, Kraemer announced he will be at the Bills game today. Welcome him, everyone.

Our pops season is off to a rousing start.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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Johnny Mathis

Saturday evening with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in Kleinhans Music Hall.

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