The road to the 2015-16 Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra season began in faraway Finland.
That was where JoAnn Falletta, the BPO’s music director, and orchestra executive director Dan Hart went, along with board member Cindy Abbot Letro. They were exploring ways to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Kleinhans Music Hall, designed by Finnish architects Elio and Eero Saarinen, and the 150th birthday anniversary of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
They visited Sibelius’ house in the country, and spoke with creative types involved in FinnFest, an American celebration of Finnish flair. Ideas took shape. And next fall, after an opening gala featuring pianist Lang Lang, the season will dawn with a two-concert Northern Lights Festival.
“It’s such an exciting way to start the season – right at the beginning to have a festival that has so much resonance,” Falletta said on the phone. “We’re starting out by celebrating the birthday of the hall, and then we’ll present pieces to showcase the hall and what it will do with the big orchestral showpieces that suit the hall so well.”
Among those showpieces are two Sibelius symphonies, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. The season culminates with a June 2016 performance of Richard Strauss’ massive “Alpine” Symphony. It has never been performed here because it requires a multitude of instruments, including a gigantic alphorn sure to look dramatic sprawled across the Kleinhans stage.
“It seems fitting to close a season celebrating Kleinhans with that work,” Falletta said. “All season, we’re celebrating the sound of Kleinhans.”
The Strauss will be accompanied by visuals displayed on Kleinhans’ new high-definition screen – visuals that Falletta said are stunning. The screen will also come into play on Halloween night, when the orchestra plays live for a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
“We certainly are putting Kleinhans through its paces,” Hart laughed.
He observed, though, that the hall is adaptable to music and performances of all sizes and kinds. “We did the fully staged ‘Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,’ and it adapted to theatrical use.” he said. “‘Bluebeard’s Castle,’ with the Dale Chihuly glass, transformed it into an opera house.”
The recent Mozart birthday concert brought a new epiphany.
“I’m reminded of how good Mozart sounded with the smaller orchestra,” Hart said. “It’s an intimate hall, but with lots of volume. I was thinking, the ceiling is so high, is Mozart going to get swallowed up? But no, it’s warm and it shines through.”
Kleinhans’ sleek, modern vibe is reflected in novel aspects of the season. Though the BPO will welcome well-known pianists Lang Lang and Andre Watts, many of the visiting artists are new. Beatrice Rana, who won the silver medal in the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition, is playing Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. Conrad Tao is playing John Adams’ “Century Rolls.” As part of the Northern Lights festival, Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen will be playing the famous Grieg Piano Concerto.
“It’s a piano year,” Falletta said. “It’s a combination of great masters like Watts, and young people, too.”
Non-pianists also strike a novel note. The dynamic young ukelele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro will be playing Ukelele Concerto by Byron Yasui. Bulgarian-American violinist Bella Hristova, who has her own glamour, will be playing Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy.” And the BPO’s own principal violist, Valerie Heywood, takes a rare turn in the spotlight in Mozart’s sublime Sinfonia Concertante For Violin and Viola.
The violinist in the Mozart is yet to be announced, but most likely it will be the BPO’s new concertmaster, whoever he or she may be. The post has been vacant since Michael Ludwig left last fall.
“We’re seeing concertmasters through April, then a decision will be made,” Falletta said. “If we fall in love with someone sooner, we’ll say OK, that’s the person. Michael has big shoes to fill. We really want someone extraordinary.”
The Pops concerts, like the Classics concerts, are a mix of new and tried-and-true.
Chris Botti, a perpetual hit, returns in February 2016. Jazz fans will be happy to see singer Dee Daniels, who gave a stunning performance with the BPO some years ago. Pink Martini, the lounge band from Seattle, has proven a sensation in other Buffalo venues, and will be joining the BPO in March 2016.
On the new side, Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” is offering an evening of comedy. Also new to BPO audiences is Jim Curry, whose voice was heard in a CBS-TV movie about John Denver. Curry is reportedly a ringer for the late folk singer and will be offering a tribute to him. Two singers known for portraying Simon and Garfunkel are bringing their show to the BPO in November.
And in April 2016, Las Vegas song-and-dance man Eric Jordan Young, a Buffalo native, is performing what promises to be a high-energy tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.
“We’re excited about it,” Hart said. “We’re always looking for local connections.”
[See the full schedule for the BPO & pops here]