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Buffalo Philharmonic transfixes as it explores war, peace

John Lennon pleaded with us to give peace a chance. The music the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus are performing this weekend show that it’s not that simple.

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his “Dona Nobis Pacem” as a plea for peace in 1935, as the Nazis were advancing and war was looming. Meanwhile Paul Hindemith, in Germany, was experiencing the same desperation at the time he wrote “Mathis der Maler,” about a German Renaissance painter who found himself at odds with the authorities.

It is poignant to hear music by a German and a British composer, both regretting the same war. Happily, their music still stands, and it’s full of life and power. Saturday’s concert flew past.

Conducted by Associate Conductor Stefan Sanders, the program begins with Beethoven’s “Corialan” Overture. This is lively Beethoven, and Sanders, who seems to be internalizing BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta’s flair for drama, plays it up every step of the way. The introduction shocked with its sudden chords and sharp silences. The tender theme that follows is leisurely and loving. And you get those flirtatious games Beethoven played between major and minor. I loved this piece as a teenager, and hearing it again, I remembered why.

Hindemith’s three-movement symphony was inspired by Matthias Grünewald, who painted the altarpiece for St. Anthony’s Church in Isenheim in Alsace, on the border of France and Germany. The paintings, visible on the Internet, are gripping and jarring. Christ on the cross is clearly in agony, his hands twisted around the nails, his toenails black. Equally disturbing is St. Anthony in the desert. This isn’t St. Anthony of Padua, who finds our lost objects. This is an earlier one, St. Anthony the Great. The picture shows him bedeviled by demons.

So much for people who try to tell us a church is only a building. Happily, the music is gentler than these shocking images. The Prelude is haunting, but pleasantly so. It makes me think of Ottorino Respighi, who brought the Renaissance to life in such works as “Church Windows.” The mood is different but the technique and effect are similar.

The BPO musicians earned their money with this one. They all took their turns in the spotlight, tracing skipping melodies. When the music builds in volume it can sound like a church organ. “The Entombment of Christ,” the following movement, had an unearthly calm.

It was only in the last movement, depicting St. Anthony in the desert with his demons, that all hell breaks loose. Hindemith achieves wild sonic effects: whooshes, galloping rhythms, ominous brass fanfares. A diabolical twittering in the high treble fades but lingers. It’s chilling.

The Vaughan Williams, which follows intermission, packs a different kind of power. For starters, you can’t help but marvel at the forces on stage. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, now led by Adam Luebke, appears to be about 120 voices strong. (I counted one row, and multiplied.) The orchestra is joined by two impressive vocal soloists, soprano Nathalie Paulin and bass-baritone Darren Stokes.

Stokes sang the part of Salieri when the BPO staged Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Mozart and Salieri.” He was terrific then, and he does a fine job with this very different music. Paulin is equally adept. Both of them held their own against huge crashing waves of sound.

Both soloists are not only resonant, but you can understand them. Most of this piece is in English, with a little bit of Latin. The text is slipped into the program, but it’s much more enjoyable not to have to follow along. The chorus, amazingly, is equally articulate. Even from the balcony, I could catch most of what the singers sang – the Walt Whitman poetry, the quotes from Scripture.

Sanders did an admirable job of keeping it all together. He also established, from the start, a transfixing atmosphere. From the first notes of the opening Agnus Dei, sung by Paulin, you felt the weight of the music. It carried you along – through dreamlike interludes with muffled drums to huge choruses.

And the close! I almost don’t want to give it away if you haven’t heard it, but it ends as it began, with solo soprano. After Paulin’s last note died out, Sanders remained motionless, as did everyone. The silence held – and held – and held. Finally, the conductor turned around, and the hall, in shock, burst into applause.

Now that is an ending.


Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's "Grant Us Peace"

Saturday night at Kleinhans Music Hall


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