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SEE THE MUSIC; The dramatic spectacle and formal flourishes of a BPO performance generate a real excitement if you know what to look for

People will tell you classical music is elite. Don't believe them.

It's sort of like the Bills and the Sabres.

Both involve a certain amount of ceremony. There are rules and uniforms, there are people who have season tickets, and who prefer to watch the action from a certain angle.

And like football or hockey, a Philharmonic concert can be exciting for people there for the first time. But It's like football or hockey. The more you watch, the more you learn.

Go to Kleinhans Music Hall and hear the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and you see the music in a new light.
The players usually dress formally in black. They don't jump around or dance the way pop musicians might. But there's just as much to watch for.

From the seats of Kleinhans, you can see so much in the music just by watching the musicians -- what they do and how they do it.

Adding to the atmosphere are traditions and conventions that play into the overall experience. It's like going to the Bills or the Sabres -- you learn what to watch for, you savor the ceremony of the occasion: the kickoff, the faceoff, the cheers at the goal or the touchdown.

A BPO concert can create its own excitement, if you know what to watch for.

>Majestic Kleinhans

If you're new to Kleinhans Music Hall, start your concert experience by taking in the majesty of your surroundings.

Paul Ferington, who frequently conducts the BPO, requires his students at Buffalo State College to attend a professional symphony concert.

"We can't underestimate the impact of walking into Kleinhans Music Hall and seeing the inside of that facility. It's a phenomenon that as musicians who are there all the time, we sometimes take for granted," he says. "It is an overwhelming experience."

Considering the hall's pristine acoustics, it's fascinating to settle in your seat early and watch the musicians warming up. They generally have half an hour, says BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta.

"You can see the ones that come out first, they're a little worried getting situated, maybe the timpanist is out there early, the harpist is out there early."

You will hear melodies and notes here and there, as musicians trickle in. "They play fragments of things they are practicing," Falletta says.

She laughs, as if letting us in on a secret. "They're practicing things that are hard," she confides. "They're not doing this for fun. They might be thinking, 'I want to get this perfect.' They go over and over spots. It gives you a window into their minds."

Falletta is so taken by this scene that she has written poetry about it.

"It's like a mosaic," she marvels. "No one's paying attention to each other. Even people sitting next to each other will be playing different things. Someone is working on an interval, someone else is trying to get the rhythm exactly right. They've screened out all the sound around them. It's like a bouquet, when you pick flowers and throw them in a vase, all of this beauty, none of it planned."

As the musicians gather, the sound builds.

"The texture grows thicker," Falletta says. You can see people's expressions. You can catch a little frustration on the face of someone who isn't happy with how something sounds, and tries it again. Sometimes a group, like the trombones, might play something together. They're having a little private rehearsal. To me, it's phenomenal to hear that.

"You watch them laughing with their friends, having a brief conversation. It's a little private world that the audience can watch."

After the bells ring, and the audience is told to turn off cell phones, the concertmaster walks out to tune up the orchestra. Generally Michael Ludwig, the BPO's concertmaster, will officiate for classics concerts. At pops concerts, associate concertmaster Amy Glidden usually does the honors.

But sometimes there is a surprise. Ludwig showed up recently, for instance, to play for the Four Tops. "I know he was looking forward to that concert,' Falletta says.

>A dramatic entrance

The musicians rise as the conductor walks out. Some conductors make a slow, dignified entrance, thrilling in its own way. Falletta comes out with a spring in her step.

"Maybe I'm filled with adrenaline because I'm excited," she says. "People say, you're charging out there, but I'm really filled with that kind of energy."

The conductor shakes hands with the concertmaster, an old ceremony signifying cooperation and mutual respect. The orchestra faces the audience.

At this point it's fun to note how principal cellist Roman Mekinulov, visible at the front and to the right of Falletta, takes an aggressive stance, feet apart. "He's like an athlete," Falletta says. Ludwig, opposite him, strikes a courtly pose. This contrast can carry into the music.

The conductor ascends the podium. Quiet descends.

Violist Janz Castelo, 35, thrills to this ancient convention. "I'm a bit of a romantic, when I think of the whole routine," he says. "I love it, how everyone is warming up -- and then it all gets quiet, and the audience gets quiet.

"The whole thing, getting dressed up in tails. It's not quite getting ready for battle -- but it's a uniform. When you put it on, it's as if, we're not stopping, this is the real thing. The concertmaster walks on, gets the two A's, we tune, and there's another silence before JoAnn comes out. It's routine for us, because we do it every week, but it never gets old."

Falletta, too, savors that spellbinding moment. "In the silence, there's so much possibility," she says. "They take a breath. We're ready."

As the music unfolds, conductors' styles vary wildly. Some are crisp; some are vague.

"I'm constantly fluctuating between how much control and how much freedom I give when I am conducting," Falletta says. "I think it's very important."

The musicians, too, show their personalities.

"Sometimes they are giving signals about piece of music," Falletta says. "Maybe Roman is into a Tchaikovsky symphony, he really loves it. By being themselves, they're drawing the audience in."

>"You! Play!"

Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, on tap next weekend at Kleinhans, ends with about 20 seconds of some of the most mind-boggling music ever conceived. Mozart takes all the themes from the last movement and plays them against each other.

On a CD, that final fugue can be confusing. "It's so ingeniously written that it's overwhelming," Falletta says. "You don't know where it's coming from."

Seeing it live offers perspective.

"You can think, 'Wow, the basses just came in -- now, the second violins, they're starting this off,' " Falletta says. "The conductor can give you a clue as to where to direct your attention. Using your eyes, you can hear better."

Watch how sections work together, following their leader. The trombone section, working as a group, has a way of demanding attention.

Whatever music the orchestra is playing, it can be fascinating to observe the conductor's individual style.

"Is there a correlation between the conductor's gestures and the sound that emanates from the musicians?" Ferington asks. "We never want a conductor to be distracting."

When cuing a musician, Falletta takes a gentle approach.

"I always like the idea that I can in some way invite them in, invite them to be in the lead at that point," she says. "It's not like, You! Play! There's a lot of give and take and inviting people to come to the fore.

"They're all so different," she adds. "Some are great showmen. Like John Fullam [the principal clarinetist]. He loves the spotlight. You can almost see his chest swelling a little bit. It's a question of communicating, how do I tell the audience how much I love this solo?"

Sometimes, the whole orchestra becomes a soloist.

"When challenging sections come up for the orchestra, they all sit forward," Falletta says. "They're ready like athletes at the starting gate. No one has said a word, but you can sense intense communication going on all the time."

>The grand finale

Concerts can end in a blaze of excitement.

"It's fun to see the musicians turn and bow," Falletta says. "Some of them are smiling, some think it's inappropriate to smile, if it was a concert with a serious piece.

"Hopefully you can see and feel their sense of satisfaction. I always like when they applaud their colleagues. I love when the musicians will clap for Christine [Bailey Davis, principal flutist], or Roman, or Michael, or John Fullam or Pierre [Roy, the principal oboist]. It's just a good feeling."

Castelo points out that often, in a spontaneous gesture, the conductor will shake the hand of the front stand players -- concertmaster, principal cellist, principal violist.

"My favorite thing is that the basses stand so far away, so the conductor will raise a hand and just nod," he says.

Occasionally, if a section was featured prominently, that section will bow. Castelo loves remembering his first concert with the BPO, when he was 25 and they played Bartok's "The Miraculous Mandarin," featuring a challenging viola part. "JoAnn gave us a standing ovation. As a new member, it was an awesome moment."

When the excitement dies down, the drama continues.

"When the musicians exit the stage, some take a long time leaving," Falletta notes. "Maybe the woodwinds might spend a while talking -- 'I'm glad we worked on that, we had really good intonation.' Someone else is rushing home because the baby-sitter's waiting. You can see something about their lives."

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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