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Cellist serves up a treat in BPO French feast

The Buffalo Philharmonic's soloist this weekend is Roman Mekinulov, the principal cellist.

He is usually visible in the front of the stage just to the right of the conductor. When the orchestra rises, he stands with his feet far apart, cello planted in front of him, impossible to miss. Once at a Sabres game, he turned up on the Jumbotron, and looked completely as if he belonged there.

As soloist, he projects the same assurance, and then some.

Mekinulov is playing the wonderful Cello Concerto No. 1 by Camille Saint-Saens. It is the centerpiece of a French-themed concert conducted by Music Director JoAnn Falletta.

After giving a hearty handshake to Concertmaster Dennis Kim, he launched into the piece with vigor and aplomb. You could relax and enjoy. And this is a piece to enjoy. Saint-Saens had a great sense for melody, and Mekinulov knows how to frame and present the music's melodies so you will savor them. If a theme repeats, its color will change slightly. He plays with a lovely lyricism and his low notes are authoritative and thrilling.

He's an engaging performer, swaying to the music, looking out at the crowd. Up in the balcony, I saw the results. A few people who had been fidgeting stopped fidgeting. A boy who couldn't have been more than 12 leaned forward, paying attention. A woman was nodding her head in time with what she was hearing. The schoolkids up near the rafters were quiet.

The orchestra reflected, and no doubt helped inspire, Mekinulov's spirit. One enchanting interlude had him interacting with the rest of the musicians in what amounted almost to a classical dance. The music was that courtly, that charming. The concerto is performed all in one piece, with no pause between movements, and I think we all felt sorry when it came to an end. The crowd -- not especially large, but passionate -- rose and applauded.

That must have been anticipated, because the orchestra joined Mekinulov for an encore, the brooding Elegie by Gabriel Faure. An encore with orchestra! How often do you hear that?

The concert could make you think of a good meal. If the Saint-Saens could be considered the main course, the opening piece, Faure's Suite from "Pelleas et Melisande" was a perfect appetizer. Its textures were light and lovely.

Falletta dedicated the performance to the late Robert Wilmers, of M&T Bank, a longtime BPO supporter. Introduced that way, the music took on a new tenderness, full of feeling right from the questioning start. The popular Sicilienne movement was delicate and sweet.

"Iberia," from Debussy's "Images for Orchestra," followed the cello concerto and brought a change of pace. It has that misty feel associated with Debussy, but also Spanish spice. A good number of individual BPO musicians got a chance to shine, and they did.

The concert ended with Ravel's "Bolero." This was the dessert of the concert, the guilty pleasure. Forget how many times you have heard it, is my advice. Just sit back.

You don't appreciate the full fun of this piece until you see it as well as hear it. To get to the thrill of the ending, you have to enjoy the long build-up. First it's just that percussion and a solo flute, then it's a clarinet, and on and on. So much is in the details -- the violinists plucking their instruments like guitars, the excitement when the timpanist gets in the game,  the drum that appears to the right of the stage, and finally, the crashing cymbals. The orchestra paced it all just right. The ending brought not only applause, but shouts.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Jan. 13.

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