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'King of piano concertos' gets the royal treatment from BPO

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has a festive Russian concert this weekend tied to its annual gala, which took place Saturday night. Italian pianist Fabio Bidini is playing the Rachmaninoff Third, arguably the king of all piano concertos, and rounding out the program is luscious music by Stravinsky and Shostakovich.

The Rachmaninoff comes last, and there is a reason for that. This is a piece you just can't follow. The audience leapt up at the last note. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The night began with BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta conducting music you could almost call lighthearted (no Russian music is exactly lighthearted). The concert began with the Suite from "The Gadfly," Op. 97, by Dmitri Shostakovich, and continued with Stravinsky's Divertimento from "The Fairy's Kiss."

The Shostakovich had the soul, and it was a delight from the word go. The crescendo near the opening felt physical, like a flash of bright light. Such beautiful themes go into this piece, and Concertmaster Michael Ludwig gave a genuine heart and poetry to the "Romance." What heart-melting music this is. The woodwinds contributed to the capricious tone of the last two movements, "Gallop" and "Fair."

Next to this lush, romantic music, the Stravinsky was a bracing change of pace. His neoclassical orchestration and spirit sounded spare, almost austere, after the Shostakovich. It was fun to watch this intellectual music unfold. You could see the themes flying around, from the woodwinds to the strings to the brass. You could visualize dancers.

Together, the pieces were a good appetizer for the Rachmaninoff. The big crowd loved them, and the music set the stage for the treat that was to follow. This was a Rachmaninoff Third for the books. Fabio Bidini, who wore the traditional tie and tails, is a compact, nervous little guy. As one person there whispered, he is a little like Dudley Moore. He sits motionless -- no gestures, no theatrics, shenanigans. He simply plays. The opening was nervous, but then the opening of this piece is supposed to be. For a few moments it sounded as if pianist and orchestra were chasing each other. Then things settled in and moved forward.

Bidini is a dream of a pianist. A few years ago he brought strength and clarity to Mozart's D Minor Concerto, and he brought something of the same sensibility to the Rachmaninoff, coincidentally in the same key. His playing is forceful, but at the same time controlled. He knows how to bring out the loveliness of a line, and the harmonies and sweet dissonances. The inner voices shone, and so did the music's beauty and logic, sometimes simpler than you might think.

His playing was powerful enough so that it was never drowned out by the orchestra, and it was never unclear. The monstrous cadenza in the first movement had power, glory and strength. The orchestra took a cue from Bidini -- I do think that in this piece, the pianist sets the tone -- and embraced the music's subtleties. The surging of the strings was a pleasure to hear, and the declamatory tone of the cellos. The basses contributed a nervousness of their own, setting the tense beat. Everyone was alert and, as the saying goes, on the same page.

In other words, everyone luxuriated in the music. That is what Rachmaninoff demands in this piece. It takes amazing strength, especially on the part of the pianist -- but you not only have to get through it, you have to feel it and love it. The slow movement was ravishing. It was rich and unhurried. Bidini knew how to change the mood and the feeling -- sometimes on a dime, as Rachmaninoff demands. In the last movement, he had a way of throwing his hands down on the keys, giving the music a churning force. He and the magnificent BPO brass fed off each other so the music began building in waves, as it should. Kudos go to Falletta, too, for pacing the piece just right, and building it slowly. The ultimate payoff came at the end. A Rachmaninoff coda, as it gathers speed, is like hurtling down a snowy hill on a flying saucer: It's too late to turn back, so you grip the handles, close your eyes and hope for the best. It all worked, it was all thrilling, and the audience burst into cheers before the last note had died out.

Probably there was an encore. I had to leave because of deadline pressure. I am not sure I would have wanted to hear anything else after this anyway.

The tumultuous concert repeats today at 2:30 p.m.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Rachmaninoff's Third: BPO Gala with Fabio Bidini, piano, and JoAnn Falletta, conductor.

Saturday night and 2:30 p.m. today in Kleinhans Music Hall, Symphony Circle.

Tickets are $30 to $75. Call 885-5000 or visit www.bpo.org.