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Opera star gets BPO season off to a joyous start

Freude! Joy!

That's the emotion that rings out in the famous finale to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the culmination of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's season-opening gala on Saturday night.

You could call the entire concert an ode to joy.

For starters, there was great news on the money front. The BPO has joined a small and elite group of lucky orchestras who can boast endowments five times their operating budgets. If this is too inside baseball, let's just say we are on great financial footing.

JoAnn Falletta was marking 20 years at the orchestra's helm. She was celebrating by achieving a longtime dream – sharing the stage with the great opera baritone Thomas Hampson.

[Read more: Falletta featured in Macy's commercial]

Hampson seemed to enjoy the occasion as much as she did, pouring heart and soul into four "Knaben Wunderhorn" songs by Gustav Mahler and four "Old American Songs" by Aaron Copland. The audience, which packed Kleinhans Music Hall to the rafters, shared the joy. The protracted, passionate applause won us an encore, Bernstein's "Lonely Town." Then it won us another encore.

Then came a surprise: Hampson said he had received a slew of emails asking him to encore an encore he had given in a recital on this very stage in the early '90s. And he launched into a famous raucous Erie Canal song, the one with the chorus that goes, "Oh, the E-R-ie is a risin'/ And the whiskey's gettin' low/And I scarcely think we'll get a drink till we get to Buffalo ..."

It's tremendous to see a great singer kick back and have fun. Hampson sang the song better than he had in his youth. He began kicking up his heels as he sang, and stamping his feet, and clapping his hands. It was rough and impetuous and the crowd went wild.

Opera and song being kind of a niche market, it's safe to guess that many folks in the hall had hardly heard of Hampson. They will remember this night.

It's rare in Buffalo to see a master singer, a real star, show what he can do. Hampson is an enchanting performer. When he sings, he steps into a dream. Even if you didn't know that "Der Schildwache Nachtlied" meant "The Sentinel's Night Song," you would sense it was about a soldier. Hampson stood ramrod straight like a soldier. He pronounced the words as a soldier would. The BPO's martial accompaniment completed the picture.

The orchestra navigated the quirky Mahler accompaniments well, with an approach that was precise but relaxed. "Little Rhine Legend" and "St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fishes" had just the right lilt, just the right lulls. Hampson suggested, by the way, that you hold onto your program and read the songs' words over at breakfast. It was clear how he took these creations to heart.

The Copland songs, too, had an easy grace. The lullaby "The Little Horses" was a sweet contrast with the more swaggering numbers, "The Dodger" and "The Boatmen's Dance." Hampson sings this music all around the world and he takes it to the wall. There is nothing like hearing him declaim, giving it all he's got, "Floatin' down the river ... the O-hi-o." He is in his early 60s, but he is handsome as ever and his voice still has its strength and sweetness. He also seems genuinely to love to perform, a marvelous thing in an artist.

The joy peaked with the Erie Canal song. I had been one of the fans pushing for it, so I was over the moon.

At intermission, though, I felt a touch of remorse. How would the Beethoven go over after that boozy, boisterous ballad?

Better than you would think.

It took a little bit to get into the spirit. That haunting start to the symphony, when Beethoven supposedly was communicating what it sounds like to be deaf – you have to clear your mind to put yourself in that place. But it could be done. The orchestra, playing with passion and commitment, drew in the crowd.

The Scherzo made me smile, because it hit me that we were not so far, after all, from those roustabout songs that Hampson had sung. "Yeah!" someone yelled when the Scherzo ended.

There was applause between movements, which I never mind because it means newcomers are here. I wonder how these newcomers enjoyed the caressing Adagio movement. What beautiful playing from the string section – led, for the record, by guest concertmaster Alexander Kagan.

The finale, too, was in good hands. Bass-baritone Kevin Deas has sung the Ninth here before, and while the orchestra could have dug deeper to find someone different, there is something to be said for going for the sure thing. He had force and presence. The other soloists – mezzo soprano Blythe Gaissert, soprano Deborah Selig and tenor Andrew Skoog – also sang with passion. The women's voices sounded muddied, but they have struck me that way before in this piece, so maybe that comes with the territory.

The singers of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, big and strong, threw themselves into the Ode to Joy with gusto. Elation filled the hall. Falletta, throwing herself literally into the music, went airborne once or twice. Seeing her fling her arms wide at the word "Elysium," all you could think was, Freude. Joy! The applause went on long after the music ended.

This season is off to a tremendous start.


Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's season-opening gala, Sept. 15 at Kleinhans Music School.

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