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Botstein brngs some excitement to BPO

It’s good to get a guest conductor at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, just to shake things up a little. Leon Botstein, doing the honors this weekend, brings his own special something to the podium.

Botstein comes to us from academia. He is the longtime president of Bard College, a liberal arts institution on the Hudson. He is a tall man, authoritatively bald, and he walks on stage with unassuming confidence, like an experienced jet pilot. He has the air of someone who has seen it all.

He seems like a modest man, and a likable man. As a musician he has a crisp sense of timing, and it adds excitement to this weekend’s concert at Kleinhans Music Hall. Good thing, too, because a big crowd turned out – even though it was a beautiful, summery evening, and not a night to be inside.

Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture, which starts the program, had a great get-up-and-go gallop. It also had precision. Timing is everything in this piece, and Botstein and the BPO shaped it well. The cellos, led by Principal Cellist Roman Mekinulov, gave great lyricism to the slow introduction. The brass gave the famous Lone Ranger theme a fine, chiseled bite. Good for the BPO program, by the way, for giving us a picture of the young Rossini, instead of the fat old Rossini we usually see. This is such engaging, enjoyable music.

After the Rossini came “Siegfried’s Funeral Music,” from Wagner’s “Gotterdaemmerung.” This was a pleasure. I don’t know when the last time was I heard Wagner at Kleinhans. It’s a brief excerpt – only eight minutes – and I am not sure it was framed quite right, sandwiched among these other pieces. Still it packed a punch. That stark music is supposed to come as a shock, and it did.

Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto came next, with Rachel Lee Priday as soloist.

In many ways this was the highlight of the night. Priday is a wonderful performer. Gorgeous in a sparkly green gown, she radiated charm. She has a gutsy way of digging into the music, and a terrific sense of rhythm – both qualities that Prokofiev requires.

She commanded attention from the first bars, which has the violin playing a klezmer-like melody against a shiver of strings. Her articulation was crisp and sure. The music was utter pleasure, spotlighting not only her playing but the talents of many individual instrumentalists of the orchestra. The last moments of the first movement were especially enchanting, with Priday’s virtuosity set off by twinkling orchestral accompaniment.

Botstein added to the magic, keeping things under calm control. They were a nice contrast, the extroverted violinist and the cool, reasonable conductor. This is music that can give you whiplash. The last movement was particularly physical. The melodies are crisp as ballet steps, and I imagine that to carry them off, the soloist has to be half dancer. Priday’s performance, juxtaposed with harp, bassoon and other colorful instruments, was thrilling. The audience loved it.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, which wrapped up the concert, may have worked better on paper than in actuality. It quotes both the “William Tell” Overture and “Siegfried’s Funeral Music,” so the program was, in a sense, neatly tied up. The only trouble was that the Shostakovich and the Prokofiev were too similar in nature.

Their spiky melodies exercised the same part of your brain. If this kind of thing is your cup of tea – and it is mine – you’ll find it fun and invigorating. But I saw some listeners fidgeting, and I couldn’t blame them.

Botstein and the BPO deserve great credit for giving the music their all.

Those Wagnerian harmonies that Shostakovich worked in had depth and conviction, and it was fascinating to observe individual musicians – the tuba, the flute, the clarinet – adapting to the music’s considerable demands. The symphony, throughout, had subtlety and soul.

The adventurous program repeats at Kleinhans Sunday at 2:30 p.m.


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