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Mozart concert is a rare treat

A big crowd turned out Saturday for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, never mind the warnings about snow and ice. And why not? The concert was all Mozart.

This weekend brings the annual Mozart birthday celebration, and it is an event. As much as everyone loves Mozart, his music isn’t heard that much in the concert hall. Maybe it’s because it calls for a pared down orchestra, for the sake of authenticity. Plus, no one makes headlines by playing Mozart. There were thousands of performances before any of us were born, and there will be thousands more after we are gone.

So Mozart is a rare treat – hence everyone’s defiance of the weather warnings. This concert features music rarely heard live.

The opening Divertimento in D for strings, K. 136, is a delight that heretofore I have heard only through recordings. The BPO has never played it before, which doesn’t surprise me. Mozart was 16 when he wrote this three-movement piece, for entertainment purposes, and it is perfection, brimming with scampering melodies and light-as-air trills. It looks ahead to such other sublime confections as “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”

The BPO’s string players put their heart into the performance. They have the right conductor for the job in David Alan Miller, the music director of the Albany Symphony. Miller clearly loves this music, and drew crisp playing from the performers. The Divertimento diverted. The playing was tight and the effect was charming.

The centerpiece of the concert was the Flute and Harp Concerto, music you hear frequently on recording but rarely live. The last time the BPO played it was in 1988, with Carol Wincenc on flute. Our soloists this weekend are flutist Demarre McGill and the famed harpist Yolanda Kondonassis.

It is a little strange to hear this music at Kleinhans. It is so much quieter than what we are used to. The configuration, too, is novel. Kondonassis’ harp, an imposing instrument with an Art Deco look, dominated the stage. Seated next to it in a long black and white gown, she looked patrician and lovely, the picture of a soloist.

Her playing was resonant and confident. So was McGill’s. It seems clear that McGill has the music in him. He danced as he played, his body moving this way and that. There was something courtly about him, something graceful and very affecting. Watching him with Kondonassis, you got the feeling you would never see this sight again. I wished I could freeze the two of them.

Both of them knew the concerto inside out. As Mozart wished, they both made what they did look easy. McGill had beautiful control. As one concertgoer pointed out, he seemed to go forever without having to take a breath. Kondonassis handled that huge harp with no apparent effort. Her arms and hands glided over the strings, arpeggios pouring out as if by their own accord.

Interviewed earlier by The News, both of them independently talked of their love for the slow movement, a romantic Andantino. It was the highlight, with delicate melody lines and surges of passion. The cadenzas they played together were also interesting. A double cadenza can be dicey, but they played them with a feel of freedom that suggested improvisation. The audience loved what they did.

This non-grandstanding music does not invite a standing ovation, but during the prolonged applause, a number of people did stand up and cheer.

The “Prague” Symphony, No. 38, showed how much Miller, the conductor, cares for this music.

He gave an impromptu spoken introduction, explaining the symphony’s place in history, and then he waited a few moments before giving the downbeat. Such an introduction was not only informative, it gave the music space and importance. Too often Mozart’s music, even his late symphonies, are treated as bonbons or as appetizers for something else. It was great to see this marvelous music put in the spotlight where it belongs.

The performance had guts and glory. The timpani, booming from the back of the Kleinhans stage, gave an ominous feel to the slow introduction. I thought the introduction should have been slower, but even at Miller’s tempo, it had weight. Throughout the piece, Miller took all the repeats, so you get to savor the music. The orchestra played the piece with passion and what looked like enjoyment. I do not think they get to play this music often.

I think the slow movement, like the introduction, should have been slower. The tender, caressing music seems to call for it. Again, though, there was no faulting the expression or the articulation. The last movement, taken at a good clip that I loved, thrilled with its dynamic contrasts.

This is a symphony of extremes. It charges forward like a train, then it lifts up like a balloon. There is a phrase in the last movement that, rising and falling and rising again, can make you feel weightless. It is a real experience to hear live, especially when it is performed with such heart as it is this weekend.

The concert repeats Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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