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BPO makes the most of Mozart with an unusual pairing

In an unusual move, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director JoAnn Falletta are performing Mozart’s mighty Requiem this weekend paired with the Adagio of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10.

The idea does make a kind of sense. The Requiem was the last piece Mozart wrote, and he left it unfinished. The Symphony No. 10 was Mahler’s farewell, and it also was left unfinished. And the Mahler, ethereal and cloudy, set the stage beautifully for the dark, powerful Mozart. Mahler loved Mozart, and I am sure he would be honored. Between the two pieces, the concert called to a wide range of people. Saturday’s concert was packed, with the audience including kids in jeans as well as seasoned, formally dressed concertgoers.

The Mahler, a rarity in my experience to hear live, did not seem as long as its 26 minutes. Maybe what happens is that, listening to it, you slip into a kind of trance. It is so sensuous, starting with the opening lines, played by the violas in seamless unison. (Valerie Heywood, principal violist, took a much-deserved bow at the end.) The music built to gorgeous sustained violin tones in high treble and yearning dissonances that made me think of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Even the brass, deep and assertive, had a softness around the edges.

This is such a sweet, sorrowing piece. By the way, it’s great how in the program notes, Edward Yadzinski points out that Mahler conducted in Buffalo five months before his death and might well have had the manuscript for this symphony with him. That possibility added an extra touch of emotion and atmosphere.

After the Mahler, you felt the power of Mozart’s Requiem with overwhelming force. The music is stark in a way that listeners now might find scary. It dates from an era when a Catholic Mass for the dead was not about eulogies and comforting the living, but consigning the departed to the next world with prayers, ancient formalities and hopes for the best. In Mozart’s era, too, you lived with death in a way most of us do not do now. Mozart and his wife buried a number of infants, just as his parents had done before him.

Brooding about that, I am not as sure as I once was that Mozart was writing his Requiem with himself in mind. It could be that he looked death in the face because that was what you did back then. In any case, the music is overpowering, especially in person. Saturday, the BPO’s performance was appropriately uncompromising. There was tremendous volume and excitement. Mozart was making the most of the orchestral palette available to him at the time. Timpani, clarinet, trumpets: He makes sure you feel them all.

Falletta’s stamp showed in dramatic touches. The Kyrie, taken at a thrilling tempo, slammed into the Dies Irae, which was enough to give you whiplash. Everyone loved it. On the other hand, nothing sounded rushed. The Tuba Mirum, which bass baritone Darren K. Stokes began with great dignity, had a stentorian grace and achieved a lovely poignancy. The Lacrymosa, reportedly the last lines Mozart wrote, was well-paced and built to a glorious ending.

The BPO Chorus – which seems to be doing fine and numbering about 100 voices strong – navigated the music well. There were a couple of awkward edges in diction – the initial “K” of the Kyrie kind of hit you in the face – but the forces were up to the music’s strenuous demands. They were especially good where it counted, in the great climbing fugue you hear at the beginning and the end.

The soloists balanced each other nicely, important in this piece because Mozart, like Handel before him, liked to build one voice on another. Sari Gruber, the soprano, had a bell-like clarity that carried through the hall. Tenor Charles Reid’s bright, incisive tones were a satisfying contrast with Darren K. Stokes’ fine bass baritone. The concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. today.