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Toasting Artpark’s grand opening and glory days

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Artpark have always been tight.

The idea for the glorious Lewiston venue was spearheaded in the 1950s by Josef Krips, who was then the BPO’s music director. Krips dreamed of “an American Salzburg,” with opera, symphony concerts, lectures and even jazz. “But no rock and roll,” he told The News in 1960. “That is just so much noise.”

When the ground was broken for Artpark, with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller presiding, the BPO played there under the direction of Krips’ successor, Lukas Foss.

And when Artpark finally opened, on July 25, 1974, the BPO played at the gala opening concert, conducted by Foss’ successor, Michael Tilson Thomas.

That July night, decades ago, was a cultural extravaganza. There was music from the Romantic, Baroque and Classical eras. Opera diva Maureen Forrester sang a Mozart aria, and Ethel Merman belted Broadway tunes. Dancers from the American Ballet Theatre danced the pas de deux from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and another pas de deux, by Tchaikovsky. It all wound up with Tchaikovsky’s booming “1812 Overture,” and a spectacular fireworks display.

Picturing that evening, Artpark President George Osborne had an audacious idea.

Why couldn’t the Buffalo Philharmonic and Music Director JoAnn Falletta re-create that concert on July 25, 2013, to celebrate Artpark’s 40th season?

With a little creativity, Osborne pulled it off.

Thursday, the BPO and Falletta will be performing the same program the orchestra played for that long-ago gala: a sparkling brass fanfare by the Italian Baroque master Giovanni Gabrieli; Berlioz’s Overture to “Benvenuto Cellini”; and “Till Eulenspiegel,” Richard Strauss’ whimsical tone poem about the fabled medieval prankster.

Norman Krieger, an acclaimed virtuoso, is playing the Chopin that Malcolm Frager played. Buffalo’s homegrown Broadway star Michele Ragusa will be performing numbers from “Phantom,” “The Music Man” and “My Fair Lady.” Sergio Neglia and Silvina Vaccerelli of the Neglia Ballet Artists will dance the Prokofiev pas de deux, and Vilia Putrius and Mindaugas Bauzys of the Festival Ballet of Providence are dancing the Tchaikovsky.

The evening will end as it ended in 1974, with the “1812 Overture” and fireworks – and a free champagne toast.

The return of the artists

Artpark is a colorful venue for classical music. The BPO has competed over the years with thunderstorms, birds and cicadas. Once, in the middle of a virtuosic concerto, a bat swooped in and orbited the stage.

But nature has its charms. And the hall lets the orchestra shine forth loud and clear.

“The acoustics in the venue are perfect for classical orchestra,” says Osborne, who is an accomplished classical baritone. “It’s just a very resonant hall. They don’t have to amplify it like they do at rock concerts, where you can’t stand it,” he laughed.

Thursday’s concert includes a video that chronicles Artpark’s rich history. The BPO marked great achievements there over the years. There were Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky marathons. Four years in the 1980s brought a complete Wagner “Ring” Cycle, an undertaking unimaginable now. The dancers who performed at Artpark included Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Even as it celebrates the longstanding relationship between Artpark and the BPO, though, Thursday’s evening strikes a bittersweet note.

The market for classical music at Artpark is not what it was years ago. Not only has government money dried up, but the park competes against more and more other musical events, many of them outdoors, and/or free.

Dance, too, is a tougher sell than it was. “For the first years, dance was one of the major things at Artpark,” Osborne said. “I’ve tried very hard to bring it back here, but it’s very difficult. The dance audience is not very large in the Buffalo market.”

Even the heat is a bigger problem than it was.

“We just had ‘The Sound of Music,’ and the temperatures probably reached 95,” Osborne said. “People aren’t used to that. I guess for the first 20 years or so, there wasn’t so much air conditioning, and people didn’t need to be so comfortable.”

On the bright side, Artpark has seen cool developments. The new seats permit patrons to bring drinks into the hall. Thursday, people will also have reason to cool off exploring the grounds.

Artpark’s art offerings have taken a hit since the glory days of the 1970s and ‘80s – a decline illustrated by the demolition of the Art-El, the sprawling boardwalk that for many was the soul of Artpark. But Thursday brings a chance to revisit the glory days of art in the park.

At 6:30 p.m., the audience is invited to a grand opening of a “40 for 40” Alumni Artist exhibit. It includes paintings, drawings, video and sculptures from artists who were in residence at Artpark in the ’70s and ’80s. With the help of the Internet, Artpark was able to track down some of them, and several will be present at a VIP reception, including John Morton, Scott Pfaffman, Scott Bye and Jeff Brosk.

A few of the artists who could not attend sent work to put on display. Artist Dale Chihuly sent a $30,000 glass sculpture.

“We’ve done a lot to celebrate our 40th anniversary,” Osborne said, “things we can’t always do here.”

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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