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BPO offers a fitting tribute to David Bowie at Canalside

Throughout his storied career, David Bowie was never afraid to embrace the unconventional.

Whether as Ziggy Stardust or the most unlikely holiday guest Bing Crosby has ever known, Bowie seemed always focused on whatever vision he had for his art or performance, regardless of how it appeared to those who didn’t understand either.

For those who haven’t seen the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra perform work outside its symphonic wheelhouse, there may be a similar confusion as to why an accomplished instrumental cooperative would dip into the work of a glam rock icon.

But after its gorgeous performance with Ontario’s orchestral-minded Jeans n’ Classics at Canalside on Thursday night, this perplexity likely dissipated, as the city’s musical collective weaved through the late Bowie’s celebrated catalog amid another immaculate evening on the city’s waterfront.

Now old hands at giving the string and woodwind treatment to the playlists of guitar gods via its annual BPO Rocks series at Kleinhans Music Hall, the Stefan Sanders-conducted outfit has dazzled legions of concertgoers with its takes on the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and others.

It’s an opportunity to connect their elaborate arrangements with the accessible favorites of the classic rock masses, and they’ve done it well.

But with an artist like Bowie – whose work defied genre labels or simply settled into a realm not considered of this planet – there’s so much territory to explore. Many of his vinyl masterpieces are accentuated by or lend themselves to the type of classical instrumentation provided by the BPO, so for many, this made Thursday night an easy sell.

For others, the fireworks-concluded spectacle provided those in attendance the chance to become introduced to or reacquainted with a visionary lost earlier this year at age 69.

Right out of the gate, a wall of strings backed the Bowie twofer of rocker “Rebel Rebel” and the cello-lined “Let’s Dance.” Behind the vocals of Jeans n’ Classics frontman Jean Meilleur, the first stormed before the second swayed, getting some out of their camping chairs, and simply surprising others. Since a section of attendees were unfamiliar with previous BPO forays into rock tributes, some didn’t expect Meilleur delivering Bowie lyrics. Thankfully, he chose not to do an impersonation of the night’s subject.

“We’re not here to imitate David Bowie,” said Meilleur. “We’re here to play with your Philharmonic, get along together, and celebrate the music of David Bowie.”

And with the backing of his Peter Brennan-led outfit and Sanders’ orchestra, Meilleur and Co. did just that, staging a memorial of sorts – complete with Canalside’s video screen running rotating photos of Bowie with such late luminaries as John Lennon, Stevie Ray Vaughn and the funktastic Rick James – for a man who was as unidentifiable as he was prolific.

Songs like “Modern Love” and “Blue Jean” shone with new orchestral elements and heightened saxophone, courtesy of Jeans’ Aaron MacDonald. “Starman” and its usual strings were enhanced anew by Buffalo’s viola professionals; “Panic in Detroit” provided an appreciated and supercharged sojourn from the artist’s mainstream hits; and the Bowie-penned tune “All the Young Dudes” (for Mott the Hoople) was somehow made more sublime via piccolo trumpet.

Tied together with the finale duo of “Changes” and “Under Pressure” before a mass of moonlight pyrotechnics, the night was a fitting tribute.

Before the BPO, early arrivals at Canalside were introduced to ragtime party that is the Fredtown Stompers. The Southern Tier gaggle of brass and strings took those seated in Adirondack chairs from the Buffalo River to New Orleans, serving free-swinging jazz and a rousing start to the evening.

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