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A night of shining slow movements, and some cartoons, from the BPO

A good house turned out Saturday to hear the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. And with good reason.

With music by Chopin, Brahms and Richard Strauss, how could you lose? And on hand to play Chopin's Second Piano Concerto was Konrad Skolarski, from Warsaw, Poland. Everything was in place for a night of richness and romance.

It all culminated in a wonderful performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 1.

JoAnn Falletta, on the podium, led the orchestra in a marvelous performance. Everything was right. She let the audience settle in before giving the downbeat, and then the symphony lifted off slowly and with heavy grace, like a zeppelin. The symphony ended with taut, tight drama and, I have to say it because I love it, high volume. Every musician in the orchestra seemed alert and alive.

The audience was drawn in, too. You could tell that, especially at the end of the slow movement. What a piece this is – exquisite, intimate, brimming with tenderness. Falletta seemed scarcely to be moving. Dennis Kim, the concertmaster, was leading the violins, and the last moments of this movement found him holding a high note. The note hung in the air, thin as tissue, and then Falletta brought the music to its close, and there was silence. Then more silence.

And then there was coughing. And rustling. And whispering, and resettling. You almost had to laugh. Everyone had been so focused, so into that slow movement. A whole hall full of people, all with silenced cell phones, all on the same page and concentrating. What magic.

Speaking of which, Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" got the concert off to an enchanting start. This piece can be tough to pull off. It's full of syncopation and changes color constantly. My husband, Howard, said it was like cartoon music. Which it is.

The Philharmonic nailed it, as an ensemble and as individuals. The whimsical motif signaling the incorrigible Till – he's kind of like Robin Hood, only more mischievous – flashed around the orchestra, flickering like a defiant fly you can't swat. The woodwinds distinguished themselves. All the musicians did, really. It was fun and they carried it off as if it were a piece of cake. The 15 minutes were over too fast.

Skolarski added to the glamour of the evening. He was completely in command of the Chopin. You sensed, too, that he had a skill for improvising. He seemed to have internalized the music, to have grasped what makes it tick. Dressed in formal wear, he was comfortable with grand gestures, which the audience loved.

Occasionally you could get the feeling he could have made more of this run or that, that he could have done a bit more to bring out the sensuous loveliness of the ornaments. Overall, though, he had a good feel for the music. He was at his best in the Larghetto, when he had to slow down. It was a night for slow movements, and this one shone, with its heart-rending melodies and unfathomable sorrow.

He rewarded the passionate applause with Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Minor, a hallowed encore piece full of Spanish snap.

This vivid, virtuosic concert repeats Sunday at 2 p.m.


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