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Mystery and romance add color to BPO's fall classics season

Buffalonians are a lively group. It's not often that we fall silent.

But we pull it off at Kleinhans Music Hall, listening to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. And one of the deepest silences descended four years ago, when violinist Joshua Bell played the Beethoven Violin Concerto. You had to catch every note. You just had to. Only when the long first movement finally ended did the big crowd exhale. Then the whole hall erupted in coughing -- and a little helpless laughter.

"Bell waited it out, head down, violin in hand," I wrote in my review. "It made for a poignant juxtaposition -- this sensuous, silky playing, coming from this unassuming, unsmiling figure, standing onstage with his Beatle haircut."

That was a night to remember.

The opening concert of this fall's BPO season promises to be equally memorable. Bell is returning, this time with the irresistibly romantic music of Max Bruch. The gala concert takes place Sept. 17 in Kleinhans Music Hall.

His appearance kicks off a season full of unique touches. Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, a legend at 82, will be paying his first visit to Buffalo in early December. Music Director JoAnn Falletta and colleagues of hers from the BPO made Penderecki's acquaintance during a 2015 trip to Poland, and this collaboration is the result. Penderecki is reportedly a delight in person, so this occasion should not only be historic, it should be fun.

The season also includes the American premiere of a newly completed piano concerto begun by Edvard Grieg. Can a contemporary artist match the old master's elusive style? We will find out in November.

And right after Bell's opening gala appearance, the BPO launches a two-week Tchaikovsky Festival. Talk about starting out with sparkle.

Here is a preview of the BPO's fall Classics Season, along with reasons to consider each concert.

• 8 p.m. Sept. 17: Joshua Bell plays one of the violin concertos of Max Bruch. The evening also features music by De Falla, Rimsky-Korsakov and Granados.

Reason to go: Bell is a classical music superstar. And his tone and approach really are unique. DeFalla's Suite No. 2 from "The Three-Cornered Hat"; Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espanol" and the Intermezzo from Granados' "Goyesca" give the evening an attractive Spanish flair that should go well with the sultry September we have been having. Also, the first concert of the season has a special excitement and feeling of unity.

• 8 p.m. Oct 1, 2:30 p.m. Oct. 2:  The BPO's Tchaikovsky Festival kicks off with Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” Suite, Piano Concerto No. 3 and Symphony No. 5. The soloist is Fabio Bidini.

Reason to go:  Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 3, not often heard, is a magnificent, whirling fragment, just one movement long, but with plenty to hear and embrace. Fabio Bidini has performed before with the BPO - including a tour of Florida - and has proven he has the chops to tackle the "big music" that has become a specialty of our orchestra. Speaking of which, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony is a showpiece that brings out some of the best playing the BPO has to offer.  I heard a performance at Artpark that was tremendously impressive. I can only imagine the punch it will pack in Kleinhans Music Hall. The "Sleeping Beauty" suite is a delight.

• 8 p.m. Oct. 15, 2:30 p.m. Oct. 16: The Tchaikovsky festival continues with the “1812” Overture; the Serenade for Strings; the Rococo Variations and the Polonaise from “Eugene Onegin.”

Reason to go: You could question the wisdom of programming the oft-heard "1812 Overture," especially right after summer, when many people have heard it once or twice along with their fireworks. Then again, who doesn't enjoy this music, however furtively? The Serenade for Strings is absolutely lovely, and so are the Rococo Variations. The festive Polonaise from the courtly opera "Eugene Onegin"  brings Tsarist Russia to life and encapsulates Tchaikovsky's skill at writing music for the dance.

• 10:30 a.m. Nov. 11, 8 p.m. Nov. 12: Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, “Romantic,” follows the Piano Concerto in B Minor, written by Helge Evju after fragments by Edvard Grieg. Carl Petersson is soloist in this American premiere.

Reason to go: Curiosity over this concerto. Grieg, whose A Minor Piano Concerto is one of the most popular piano concertos of all time,  began a B Minor concerto when he was about 40 but abandoned the project.  All he left were a few fragments that were tantalizingly lovely. Grieg was a first-rate melodist and for that reason alone, the idea of completing the concerto is an attractive, though daunting, idea. Evju's concerto has a late-Romantic, expansive feel, with hints of Rachmaninoff. Swedish pianist Petersson specializes in this piece and has performed it all over the world. Also, the Fourth is the Bruckner symphony to hear, whether you are a seasoned fan of Romantic music, or a newcomer. This will be its ninth appearance on the Classics series. Go and enjoy.

• 8 p.m. Nov. 19, 2:30 p.m. Nov. 20: Tianwa Yang is the soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Also, Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 2, “London.”

Reason to go: Tianwa Yang is an engaging soloist and has not been to Buffalo since 2010. The Beethoven concerto should sound gorgeous on her 1730 Guarneri del Gesu.  Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 2 is a sound portrait of the city of London, England, written just before the start of World War I. Like the Bruckner, this is the kind of late Romantic music that the BPO embraces. It will be interesting to see how Falletta and the orchestra handle it.

• 8 p.m. Dec. 3, 2:30 p.m. Dec. 4: Krzysztof Penderecki conducts his Concerto for Violin and Cello, with soloists Dennis Kim and Roman Mekinulov. Also, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 and Beethoven’s Overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus.”

Reason to go: Penderecki's visit to Buffalo will be something to remember.  The word is that he is a delight in person. It will be fun to see Kim, the BPO's new concertmaster, soloing for the first time with Mekinulov, the principal cellist. This promises to be a dramatic concert and one people will be talking about. The Beethoven and Dvorak pieces are proven hits.

• 10:30 a.m. Dec. 9, 8 p.m. Dec. 10: Stefan Sanders conducts “A Classical Christmas.”

Reason to go: "A Classical Christmas," a tradition begun by Falletta, is unpredictable -- or at least it should be. The idea behind it is that the conductor chooses Christmas-themed music that is close to his or her heart. And at least some of it should be off the beaten path. The bar is raised for this concert this year because our new Pops conductor, John Morris Russell, styles himself a "Mr. Christmas" and, by all accounts, lives up to that title. If "A Classical Christmas" is to stand beside Russell's Holiday Pops (Dec. 16-18), it has to be something special.



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