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Philharmonic Chorus shines as 'Classical Christmas' highlight

A full house turned out Saturday for "A Classical Christmas," the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's final Classics concert of 2010.

There was excitement even before the concert started. "A Tuba Christmas" took over the Mary Seaton Room, and those lucky enough to be there spoke of it with admiration, how creative it was, how virtuosic the tubas. The Philharmonic's performance, in turn, was also virtuosic, and sparkling.

A big draw was the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, decked out in red and black and raring to go. This massive ensemble has been polishing its act and its sound was chiseled and powerful.

The concert had a good range -- from the finale to Honegger's 1953 "Une Cantate de Noel," a festival of excess, to Corelli's delicate, touching "Christmas Concerto"; from Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" to Ralph Vaughan Williams' reflective Fantasia on "Greensleeves." There was the familiar -- a brassy fanfare based on "Joy to the World" -- and lesser-heard gems, like the dreamy finale from Edward Elgar's "The Starlight Express."

One nicely chosen piece was the Polonaise from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Christmas Eve." BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta, speaking from the podium, introduced it irresistibly: "With this piece, Rimsky-Korsakov sets the scene for Christmas Eve in the palace of the czar!" Who wouldn't give anything to be spending Christmas Eve in the palace of the czar? I know I was drawn in.

That captivating music, with its wonderful crashing close, was followed by Corelli's "Christmas Concerto," again introduced mellifluously and irresistibly by Falletta. The orchestra gave this marvelous concerto a silken performance. Principal Cellist Roman Mekinulov and Concertmaster Michael Ludwig contributed sensitive, affecting solos.

The Philharmonic Chorus is to thank for the biggest thrills of the evening. The Honegger piece, with its references to the Bach-era Advent chorale "Wachet Auf," set the stage nicely for the beginning of Bach's festive "Christmas Oratorio." How often do you get to hear this Bach chorus live? You could actually see the melody as it moved from one part of the chorus to another. With the brass and the booming timpani, it made you want to jump out of your skin.

Vaughan Williams' "Greensleeves" Fantasia spotlighted the subtleties of flutists Christine Davis and Betsy Reeds, as well as harpist Suzanne Thomas. The delicate, airy piece was a good chaser to the robust Bach.

Tuba and trombones shone in two excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," which attained great excitement and volume. Then it was time for the Handel.

It was fun to watch Falletta conducting the opening "Sinfonia," as if she were dancing. "Unto Us a Child is Born" put the chorus through its paces, and the chorus was up to the job. The neat staccatos -- "and the government shall be upon his shou-ou-ou-ou-oulders" -- and the fluttery, challenging melody lines showed the group's clarity and articulation. The "Hallelujah Chorus" resounded and impressed. Handel would be happy at how his music holds up. I think it is as thrilling now as it ever was.

You have one last chance to catch the BPO in 2010, at the Family Concert today at 2:30 p.m., "A Visit from St. Nick."



>Concert Review

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

"Classical Christmas" with Music Director JoAnn Falletta. Saturday evening in Kleinhans Music Hall.

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