The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's opening gala radiated a special star power this year.
German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, one of the world's most famous and enduring virtuosi, was here to perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, one of the world's most famous concertos. Mutter doesn't perform much in the United States, but her name looms large for classical music devotees. BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta has been trying to get her to join them for years. It was a rare chance to hear Mutter live and in person.
"And you have to mention the dress!" urged Jim, an usher I met at the concert as I was rushing out to meet my deadline. "How could anyone not fall in love with her the way she looked in that dress? Make sure you mention the dress!"
The News already mentioned the dress, sort of, in a Sunday story. It was about how Mutter was the first violinist to wear strapless gowns, because she likes to feel the vibrations of the violin against her skin. The dress she wore for the gala was a drop-dead lemon yellow number. It looked like out of a Tissot painting.
Her playing, too, was as exciting as expected.
Mutter draws sounds out of the violin you didn't know existed. We are talking dog-whistle high notes that whisper into silence. And rich low notes that made you think of a rich-voiced contralto. Sometimes the notes are delicate as tissue and sometimes they have a rough, gutsy texture. My husband, Howard, said that one low tone made him imagine she was drawing a file across the string.
She has a tremendous feel for the music. On recordings she has sometimes seemed to me too self-indulgent. But in person, and with this Romantic concerto, it all worked. She brought out all the grit and excitement of the gypsyish Russian dance themes, starting luxuriously slow and then working to a breakneck speed.
A big bravo to the orchestra for following her with consummate grace. Everyone knows this concerto, I'm sure, but it's not every day you play with somebody as freewheeling as Mutter. Our musicians nailed it to the nanosecond.
As glamorous and assertive as she is, Mutter projects no ego. She seemed to be enjoying the music. She also seemed a warm collaborator. She stood so close to Falletta it sometimes appeared as if they were reading off the same score, and you could see her interacting closely and graciously with the musicians of the orchestra. She played so exquisitely softly in the second movement that when BPO musicians soloed, they were on an equal level with her. It made all of us hear new things in this piece.
Everyone who had met her talked about how nice she is, and I believe them.
At the same time, she had real fire, and the orchestra responded in kind. The concerto's ending was breathtaking.
The orchestra sounded particularly rich all night, and packed tremendous volume. It set the stage for the Tchaikovsky with gypsy music – Johannes Brahms' show-stopping First Hungarian Dance, and the Suite on Hungarian Folk Themes by Hungarian composer Leo Weiner. The Weiner piece, an unknown quantity to most, was full of color and pageantry. It was great for newcomers.
We also heard the Intermezzo from music that Austrian composer Franz Schmidt wrote for "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." You would never guess this lovely romantic music had anything to do with that story.
No opening gala is complete without good news, and this year, the future looks especially bright. The budget is balanced once more, it was announced, and the endowment is approaching $50 million.
Mutter topped off the festive evening with an encore, the Sarabande from Bach's Second Partita.
The concert season is off to a stunning start.