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An exquisite mix for Mozart Birthday

The opportunity could not have been better. Friday was Mozart's 257th birthday, so JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra turned this weekend's pair of Classics Series concerts into all-Mozart showpieces.

There is a risk in all-Mozart concerts because too often they can reflect an ambience that is decidedly vanilla. Falletta's deftly chosen program avoided this, however, with works that offered contrasting lightheartedness, exquisite lyricism and dramatic flourish.

The title of the 1776 "Serenata Notturna," K239 may suggest an air of moonlit reverie, but is actually a brief, sparkling, three-movement diversion that is both lighthearted and witty, with four string soloists playing off a string orchestra (without basses) and timpani.

Falletta and the BPO caught just the right mix of stateliness and jocularity that animate the opening March movement, the grace of the middle Minuet with its extended solos in the Trio section, and the playful concluding Rondo.

There's a local connection that gives the 1775 Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K216, pride of place as the crown of the concert. The soloist, award-winning violinist Yi-Jia Susanne Hou (pronounced "How"), is playing the Guarneri del Gesu violin known as the "Mary Portman." This pedigreed instrument is owned by Clement and Karen Arrison of Buffalo and is on generous extended loan to Hou.

Mozart's violin concertos are more concerned with projecting grace, lyricism and subtlety than virtuosity. Hou and the BPO reflected these qualities superbly, from the first movement's agility and deft sense of pulse and phrasing, through the surpassingly lovely Andante's sweetly singing lines and beautiful but not overdramatic dynamic contrasts. The playful character of the concluding Rondo was also spontaneously captured, to great audience delight.

In Hou's hands, the treasured violin's tone had both warmth and breadth without loss of focus. It also could project a unique radiance and intensity in the lower register plus a beguiling sweetness in the instrument's upper reaches.

The concert concludes with the Symphony No. 36, K425, composed in an amazing four days for a concert in Linz, Austria, in November 1783.

Surrounded by the better-known "Haffner" and "Prague" symphonies, the "Linz" is fully their equal, as shown at the outset by the unusual slow introduction and the dramatic gestures that lead to the lighthearted and engaging main theme, certainly one of Mozart's most sublime lyrical inspirations. The tempo was pushed a bit, which made some of the running passages seem mechanical, but the introspective and thoughtful Andante, the pointed dancing rhythms of the Menuetto, and Falletta's fine traversal of the agitated but still joyful Finale made this underrated symphony a great pleasure.

The concert had also received another dollop of dark drama with a stunning performance of the 1787 Overture to "Don Giovanni."

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Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

"Mozart's Birthday" with Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, violin and JoAnn Falletta, conductor. Friday morning and 8 p.m. today in Kleinhans Music Hall, Symphony Circle. Tickets are $25-$72. Call 885-5000 or visit www.bpo.org.