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A crashing, dramatic end to the BPO's Classics season

The Buffalo Philharmonic's Classics season is going out with a bang.

For sheer crowd appeal, it is hard to beat the final program. Music Director JoAnn Falletta is conducting Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and Ottorino Respighi's "The Fountains of Rome" and "The Pines of Rome" ... what is not to love? No wonder a big crowd turned out for the Saturday night concert, the first of two.

The evening began with a novelty, Three Symphonic Preludes after Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex," by the Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti, who was born in 1880 and died in 1968. The music was romantic and lush, a pleasure to listen to even if it was largely abstract and a challenge to grab on to at first hearing. The orchestra approached it with delicacy, and there was magical playing by the woodwinds and strings.

The piano soloist in the Rachmaninoff, Benedetto Lupo, performed with the Philharmonic some years ago and impressed Buffalo then with his virtuosity and quiet command. On this occasion, too, he strode out with confidence. You knew the Rachmaninoff would be in good hands, and it was.

The orchestra, too, distinguished itself. The performance was full of dash and fire. From the start, the "Rhapsody" was full of nervous energy and, when the time came for it, stomping momentum. Timing was exquisite. Every little sound effect came exactly at the right time, and it all sounded natural, not forced.

Lupo has a rather classical approach. He plays with precision rather than with sweeping bravado, and does not rely heavily on the pedal. It was an interesting, non-grandstanding approach to this warhorse of a piece, something we are used to hearing treated with schmaltz and showmanship, not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that.

In the famous, romantic variation -- for classical music newbies, this is the one heard in the old Christopher Reeve movie "Somewhere in Time" -- he put his own quiet spin on things, without hitting you over the head with it. It was a beautiful rendition, and when the orchestra joined in, I had to smile. I was remembering seeing that old movie as a high school student, with my friends. There we were, an entire row of 16-year-old girls, all of us crying. It wasn't because of the movie. It was because of this music. The drama would have been nothing without it.

That variation ended, as it always regrettably must, and the piece went forward with color and spirit. We are talking big, jarring fortes, glitter, and zest. Lupo, Falletta and company finessed the ending superbly. I have never heard it better, and I have heard this piece a million times.

After all that drama, you knew the Respighi would be tremendous, and it was.

Word is that the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is recording this music for a future CD. That CD will be amazing. Heard in the acoustics of Kleinhans Music Hall, the music rang out with sometimes shocking volume. It was immersive experience.

Ottorino Respighi surely intended it that way. He was a master at handling orchestration. "The Fountains of Rome" and "The Pines of Rome," two 20-minute tone poems, evoke the spirit of Rome, both ancient and modern, better than any movie will ever be able to do. Drink this music in, and you will probably know Rome better than if you had been there yourself. The portrayal is that vivid.

Falletta and the orchestra took it to the wall. "The Fountains Of Rome" glimmered with delicacy. "The Pines of Rome," one of classical music's greatest hits, also had that love and precision. But it also had force.

The excitement began before the music even started. You could see the music stands set up in the balcony, ready for the distant fanfares that accompany the finale, "The Pines of the Appian Way." My father, who taught high school Latin, used to thrill to this music. He said it portrayed the Roman legions marching home in triumph along the Appian Way. That is how I always think of it.

And so listening to the BPO play it, I found myself closing my eyes. The arabesque melodies in the woodwinds suggested the exotic lands the soldiers had seen, and conquered. Veni, vidi, vici, as Caesar said. You also hear the growing thunder of the soldiers' boots. The piece built to terrific excitement. The brass kicked in from the balcony. Falletta, on the podium, kept looking over her shoulder, keeping in touch. The piece's crashing ending, magnified by the Kleinhans acoustics, brought the listeners to their feet.

As I left, I could hear people not only cheering but yelling bravos, and laughing with wonder and delight. To leave people laughing from sheer joy -- how wonderful is that?

What an end to the Classics season.

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