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A masterful playing on Friday with the BPO

Instruments should be played. That said, an expensive and historically important violin like the one played by Tim Fain would be silenced were it not for Buffalo based benefactors Clement and Karen Arrison. They own the 1717 Francesco Gobetti violin and loaned it to Fain, a young virtuoso whose skills showcase the creator’s art in ways that pay honor to Gobetti and the Arrisons.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade, after Plato: Symposium” is a violin concerto in all but name and Fain’s performance of it Friday with JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was masterful. The evocative opening strains of the solo violin bordered on elegiac, and the orchestra’s string players moved from a measured support into a boisterous companionship.

The result displayed Bernstein (and Fain) at their most beguiling as drama and release alternated over the course of the work’s five movements. It all ended with a big finish and a standing ovation for the musicians.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Gustav Mahler’s first symphony, an anthology of themes knitted together and serving as an introduction to what would become one of the 20th century’s finest symphonic cycles.

Mahler meshed folk tunes, marches, and dance rhythms in ways that ran the gamut from dark to light and back again; lengthy passages were packed with emotional undercurrents vying for primacy as episodes paced between the quick and the deliberate, recycling thematic material by placing them in different instrumental groupings.

At one point (in the third movement) the French folk tune “Frere Jacques” appeared amongst the basses as the timpani pulsed in the background. Then the cellos, horns, and violas all had their shot at picking up the theme. Before the movement ended Mahler even dipped into the klezmer bag for some material.

Falletta’s control of the orchestra and mastery of the score was solid, as usual. Watching her movements on the podium as she led the musicians through the various sections revealed as much about her commitment to the music as it did about her abilities to communicate that commitment to the orchestra.

Bruno Walter, a former assistant to Mahler and a world class conductor in his own right once said of his mentor, “His was a turbulent world of music, impassioned humanism, poetic imagination, philosophic thought, and religious feeling.”

That about sums up the music and the BPO’s performance.

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