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Violinist adds virtuosity to atmospheric BPO concert

This weekend's Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert goes perfectly with our snow.

No wonder a decent-sized crowd made it to Kleinhans Music Hall on Saturday night, despite the slippery roads. The music was just what we needed to hear. The centerpiece is Sibelius' Violin Concerto, brimming with icy beauty. The other main attraction is Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade." Nothing mirrors our white nights like Russian music.

JoAnn Falletta, the BPO's music director, is conducting. The soloist for the Sibelius is Finnish violinist Elina Vahala.

Vahala was here a couple of years ago, and made an impression then. Playing the Sibelius concerto, she seemed even better – more mature, more authoritative.

Beautiful in a midnight blue gown, she played right from the beginning with urgency and excitement. She is not a grandstanding player, but she commands attention with her focused, lyrical approach. The cadenza she played in the first movement sparkled in its clarity. It was one of those moments in Kleinhans when time seemed suspended – the orchestra silent, Falletta motionless on the podium, the crowd completely still. The coda had a breathless excitement and Falletta finessed it all so nicely that when it came to a close, you could tell it was all the audience could do not to burst into applause.

The Adagio was the highlight. The beautiful music spotlighted Vahala's full, rich tone. The galloping last movement brought back the excitement of the first. Vahala's virtuosity was matched by the orchestra's. The blasts of brass, the rumbles of timpani, everything made for great drama and build-ups of sound. Even when the music was over, the theater wasn't over. Vahala, in her gorgeous gown, swept over to embrace Falletta and shake the hand of concertmaster Dennis Kim. The crowd rose and applauded. It was one of those wonderful live music moments. I think all the listeners were glad they ventured out in the snow.

"Scheherazade" is a known hit, and something about it brings a special buzz. At the end of intermission, the audience members in the lobby seemed to come alive. From the hall, you could hear several famous themes, as an orchestra musician or two did a last-minute run-through. One of the ushers caught her breath. "I love this music," she said.

The performance lived up to expectations. This epic, exotic tone poem is right in the BPO's wheelhouse. We got to hear arabesque solos from Dennis Kim as well as Roman Mekinulov, the principal cellist. It is a special pleasure to hear Mekinulov in a piece like this. He pours a particular passion into it when he plays Russian music.

Everyone, from Falletta on down, gave the piece the kind of excitement you would give something you rarely heard, not a popular piece like this, something that used to be called a warhorse. The musicians didn't just perform it. They celebrated it. They made it irresistible. You sank into it the way you would sink into a luxurious cushion.

The concert began with a modern piece, the Symphony No. 1 of a young American composer, Wang Jie. Jie shows promise. The music had a vague, wheezy start, and it never lost its abstract feel. But it took hold of you, in a way, because of its rhythm and propulsion. I found myself swept up in it, enjoying it. She took a bow at the end and the crowd gave her a big hand.

The wintry concert repeats Sunday at 2:30 p.m.








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