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Currie joins BPO in percussive concert

By the sound of it, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is having a lot of fun this weekend at Kleinhans Music Hall. Music Director JoAnn Falletta is conducting a concert of American music, and it’s all snazzy and sparkly and enjoyable.

The guest star is celebrated Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, who appears to have something of a local following. He took part Saturday in a Day of Percussion at Buffalo State College and my guess is that a lot of the students followed him to Kleinhans. People in the modest but passionate crowd cheered him and seemed familiar with the music he played, the Percussion Concerto of Jennifer Higdon. They knew the snap-bang surprise ending the moment it arrived, and jumped up to applaud.

The concert starts with Jerome Moross’ sunny Symphony No. 1, written in 1941 to lift people’s spirits in the face of a looming world war. The Philharmonic is also playing the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” And rounding out the program is a new and lovely serenade for strings by Russell Platt, “Eurydice.”

Both the 2011 Platt piece and the 2010 Higdon concerto are utterly enjoyable, albeit in very different ways. They show the BPO’s skill at creative programming, giving us music that is adventurous but not onerous. That is an excellent thing in an orchestra and one reason that ours is doing so well.

Currie adds his own glamour to the proceedings. He’s kind of a hip cat. Saturday, he made a very self-assured, almost cocky, entrance, marching from the wings and clapping Concertmaster Michael Ludwig on the shoulder.

Currie had instruments arrayed all across the front of the stage. The concerto began with him alone, making subterranean sound effects with the marimba. It was a mesmerizing moment, with Currie sounding these soft, weird notes, Falletta standing still, and the orchestra musicians sitting there. Gradually, the BPO’s percussionists, along the back wall, began chiming in, with sounds ranging from bells to, eventually, booming timpani. Only after they had had their say did the rest of the orchestra burst forth.

The BPO’s percussionists get a workout along with Currie throughout the piece, and you could pretty much take them as his equal. Currie, of course, has his own star quality. A few times he flipped a marimba stick in the air, catching it again in his hand. Focused and wired, he made a show out of dashing from the marimba to the drum set and back again, crossing freely between Falletta and the orchestra.

Always, he was in cahoots with our percussionists, and the exchanges he had with them were warm and witty. The range of sounds was boundless but always musical, from high-treble burbling from the marimba to deep blasts from the orchestra’s brass. When the piece ended, the applause was prolonged enough so that Currie rewarded us with a brief but blistering solo on the drum set. What fun.

Platt’s “Eurydice” could hardly have been more different. He wrote it for a Swiss orchestra and it is European and traditional in tone, full of ethereal and lovely harmonies. It is the kind of music that floats in the air and could remind you at times of Wagner or Mahler. The cellos and violins play yearning, sensuous lines. The music has a gentle pulse that slows and calms your mind -- transports you, you could say. At the end the piece kind of faded away. It was a wonderful moment and how nice that Platt was on hand to appreciate it. He was called back for several bows.

The symphony of Jerome Moross, who died in 1983, was the oldest piece on the program and brimmed with bright, primary colors. His tunes are simple but memorable. They are like good building blocks and he arranged them with skill in all kinds of configurations.

Moross wrote music for movies and television and was a skilled orchestrator, keeping you charmed with everything from bright trumpet lines to thumps from the basses and bassoons. One movement has a tumbling theme played on the piano with a lot of bright octaves. Another is rich in woodwinds, and the finale is peppy and full of good-natured counterpoint. The influence of Aaron Copland showed in the piece’s horizontal, American feel. You could also catch glimmers of Gershwin and, briefly in the piano interlude, Rachmaninoff.

The “West Side Story” dances brought the concert to a splashy close. I am not sure how well this music holds up on the concert stage by itself. I kept wishing for dancers. But seeing the orchestra musicians snap their fingers never gets old. And it was thrilling to hear the thundering “Mambo” magnified by Kleinhans’ acoustics, and the percussion shines with its rattles, bangs and whistles. This is one percussive concert. It repeats today at 2:30 p.m.


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