There is a guest conductor in town.
Leading the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra this weekend is Rebecca Miller, a California conductor who has made a name for herself in Great Britain. She is a powerhouse.
She cut an irresistible figure sporting skinny black pants, old-fashioned tails and -- the kicker -- black flats that had some kind of sparkle in the heels. Energetic and tightly wound, she sold Beethoven's Fourth Symphony as I doubt it has ever been sold before. The performance was taut and explosive.
What fun. What excitement.
The Beethoven caps a program that begins with Brahms' exquisite "Variations on a Theme by Haydn."
A masterpiece brimming with pure pleasure, this music was once known as a warhorse, something you heard all the time. But it hasn't been on the classics season since 2006, and I haven't heard it live since I was a teenager in Chautauqua. I loved it then and I love it now. Miller and the BPO, too, seemed to appreciate its greatness. The music began with warmth and dignity and quickly took on an airy grace.
Like a lot of Brahms, the music walks a fine line between serious and light. It's a tough call, but the performance pretty much nailed it. There were variations that soared and dreamed, and others so bombastic that after one of them, the crowd began to applaud. I didn't mind. I loved that there were people here who had never heard this music before. I envied them. Enjoy.
Miller could have ratcheted things up a little more at the end. There is a Karajan recording of this that can make you burst into tears, the finale washes over you with such passion and glory. I'm not sure how it's done. I think you really have to take it over the cliff. Still, this performance was definitely good -- and besides, this was the Coffee Concert, a little early for that kind of a thrill. Advice for Saturday night: Go for broke.
Between the Brahms and the Beethoven, we have Schumann's Piano Concerto, featuring the young Chinese pianist Fei-Fei Dong. She was a top finalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. In a stunning crimson gown, she cut a beautiful and glamorous figure. I love when soloists respect an occasion like this, and dress for it.
Fei-Fei Dong has poetry in her playing. She has a fine feel for the music, and a grand approach that draws in a crowd. She can sculpt a phrase beautifully, and negotiate a virtuoso passage so it echoes through the hall. She projects confidence, an excellent and all-important quality.
She also came off as mercurial, though, and her performance was on the erratic side. Sometimes her playing was too heavy-handed, and at other times it sounded weak. Maybe it was part of her broad Romantic approach, but she took too many liberties with the tempo. In the tender interludes of the first movement, the music almost faded away. The cadenza, too, bogged down. I would have liked to have been a bug on the wall at rehearsals. I am not sure how Miller, considering her take-no-prisoners Beethoven, adapted to this nebulous approach.
Having said all that, I also have to say that when the piece ended, with one of the pianist's big flourishes, the crowd rose and cheered and yelled, "Bravo!" The orchestra applauded as well, the string players beating with their bows on their music stands. So what do I know. As I often say, a lot of this comes down to taste and what you like, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Dong played an encore, a humorously over-the-top loud and complex spin on Mozart's "Turkish March." I like this fad of tricking out the "Turkish March" in various ways. I think Mozart would have liked it, too. I had never heard this particular version. It was loud and weird, but you had to give it a big hand.
This exciting adventure repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday at Kleinhans Music Hall.
Fei-Fei Dong with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and guest conductor Rebecca Miller
Friday morning in Kleinhans Music Hall