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BPO showcases American composers

Saturday night was American music night with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The second half of the concert was devoted to works by Roy Harris and Aaron Copland from the first half of the 20th century, while the program opened up with two more modern scores by John Adams and Mark O'Connor.

O'Connor's "Improvised Violin Concerto" was the headliner and the composer, a masterful violinist/fiddler in any number of genres, gave a preconcert talk -- along with the orchestra's associate conductor, Matthew Kraemer -- about his ninth concerto and its construction. The solo violin part is totally improvised, a feature which means that the piece will change with every performance. The only hard-and-fast written part is the one for orchestra.

In Saturday night's run-through, the (amplified) violin soared, danced and occasionally took time to breathe. There were elements of folk tunes, bluegrass riffs and jazz flavors in the solo, not surprising given O'Connor's embrace of more than one stylistic influence.

This was only O'Connor's second time performing the piece before a live audience, and most of the audience gave him a standing ovation and a batch of curtain calls. Anyone attending this afternoon's 2:30 p.m. performance of the piece will probably witness the same reaction but to a different take on the solo part.

John Adams' "Lollapalooza," a short orchestral blast of minimalism built from thematic cells overlapping each other -- as if they were part of a "round" -- a flurry of key shifts and pulses, was an interesting selection to begin the concert. It wasn't exactly drawn from the top shelf of Adams' catalog, but it contained many of the same elements which have made him a fairly prominent modern composer.

After the intermission, the program continued with music by two American composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the first part of the last century. Roy Harris did so upon the recommendation of Aaron Copland, who had worked with Boulanger earlier. Harris was, in many ways, more conservative than Copland, although both used folk tunes in some of their most successful pieces.

First performed in 1939, Harris' third symphony is an approximately 19-minute long, single-movement score that many critics have considered to be one of the finest 20th century American symphonies. The opening measures, with their massed cellos providing the ground upon which everything else is built, have an elegiac power that keeps coming back to the fore after periodically yielding center stage to other sections of the orchestra.

Kraemer and the BPO had the full measure of the symphony and delivered a solid performance of that and Copland's "Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo." This last piece was on a CD collection by the BPO under JoAnn Falletta's direction, and the orchestra has retained a fairly decent feel for the score due to their familiarity with the music.

All in all, it was a good concert with a mixture of newer and older material, a blending of the familiar and the less so. It would be good to see the BPO adopt other programs with similar emphasis on American music and composers.


Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Saturday night at Kleinhans Music Hall; today at 2:30 p.m.