A Memorial Day pops concert can be a tough call. Because it is a tribute to the fallen, it can’t be too jaunty. At the same time, you don’t want it too somber, either.
That means that the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus are walking a delicate line this weekend. The impressive forces, led by Associate Conductor Stefan Sanders, managed it admirably.
Sanders is new on the job, and in the concert’s first half, he was on the formal side. Not a problem with me, I like formal. But in the second half it was nice to see more of his sense of humor.
“How many of you have heard this one? Let’s have a show of hands,” he said following Morton Gould’s “American Salute.”
Sheepishly, a lot of hands went up.
“We play that a lot here in Buffalo,” Sanders said unapologetically. “Matter of fact, we didn’t even rehearse it yesterday.” He completely won the crowd over.
The first half, like Sanders’ manner, was darker than the second. The national anthem got things off to a stirring start. Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare For the Common Man” followed, performed crisply and incisively by Alex Jokipii, principal trumpet player.
The Hymn to the Fallen from “Saving Private Ryan,” by John Williams, isn’t a household tune, and it was a good idea to include it. It was introspective and lulling and the wordless voices of the chorus gave it a transcendent quality. And is there anything more teary than the “Ashokan Farewell,” the theme of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”? Associate Concertmaster Amy Glidden, this weekend’s concertmaster, did a lovely job with the solo. It is supposed to sound as if it is played by a country fiddler, and gave it the right natural grace.
Speaking of teary, “Amazing Grace” came complete with a bagpiper, Bryan Eckenrode. In formal Scottish attire, he was a regal presence. You almost never get to hear a bagpipe at Kleinhans Music Hall, and its sound in the pristine acoustics was pure and lonely. When the hymn was over, a good number of people gave it a standing ovation.
The concert’s second half, a little more laid-back, was at least as inspiring. “A George M. Cohan Overture” lightened things up nicely. Beautifully arranged, it included “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” a song I have liked every since my great-aunts sang it to me when I was little, as well as “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and the great Irish number “Harrigan.”
The chorus soared in “Shenandoah.” Then a few marches picked us up. Sanders has a snappy beat – he’s a brass player, after all – and he and the orchestra gave a lot of fire to the “Colonel Bogey” March and Sousa’s famous “Washington Post” March.
The “Armed Forces Salute” is always moving. Like Gould’s “American Salute,” you could say we do it all the time, but somehow it keeps its thrill. The BPO plays the anthems from all the various branches of the military, and as each anthem plays, the veterans of that particular division rise to accept the audience’s cheers.
This time, the chorus sang the words to the anthems, making it that much more dramatic. And it was so touching to see the veterans waving, saluting each other and leaning across the aisles to shake hands.
“Thank you for your service. God bless you, God bless you,” Sanders said. “This country is the best country in the world.” As one audience member shouted, “Hear, hear.”
Veterans, by the way, are admitted free to this concert, and so are active-duty military personnel. It repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday.