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The BPO's Czech mates and a piano concerto

By Garaud MacTaggart

Tanya Gabrielian is a talented pianist whose technical chops and energetic performances bode well for the future. Those qualities were showcased in Friday morning’s concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra when she was booked as the soloist for Aram Khachaturian’s lone piano concerto.

Leading the BPO in this program was Charles Olivieri-Munroe, a Malta born, Canadian educated resident of Prague, Czechoslovakia. His  conducting resume includes a number of internationally well-known orchestras and a strong concentration on, but not limited to, Czech and Russian composers.

It’s that Czech connection that helped fill out the balance of Friday’s concert when works by Antonin Dvorak (“A Hero’s Song”) and Bedrich Smetana (“From My Life”) bracketed the Russian/Armenian concerto by Khachaturian.

Dvorak’s piece – the last of his tone poems and the final orchestral score in his catalog – led the proceedings with the low strings (violas and basses) guiding the brass and violins through a taut sonic tapestry, weaving their way between hints of disruptive forces at work and pastoral passages that (momentarily) relieved the tension.

The composer’s typical gift of melodic invention was brought to the fore and it served as a contrast to the Khachaturian concerto that followed.

Grigory Shneerson, one of Khachaturian’s biographers, noted that the composer’s mastery of the piano “was based not on schooling but on the practice of spontaneous music-making. At the same time he possessed a good, if somewhat unorthodox, technique, and what is more, an inborn sense of the piano, of its potentialities.”

The writer was saying that this composer’s infatuation with improvisation was based on Khachaturian’s fascination with Armenian and Zaerbaijan folk traditions, a quality illustrated by his better known works like the violin concerto and the “Sabre Dance.”

Gabrielian’s treatment of the work’s second movement (Andante con anima) was wonderful and was the solo passage in the opening Allegro where the improvisatory elements were somewhat muted but fluid and effective.

The concert finale was George Szell’s arrangement of Smetana’s first string quartet aka “From My Life” and, from a musical standpoint, this might very well have been the most singularly arresting work on the program. In its original form, this piece is a gem of the string quartet repertoire. What Szell did was add brass, winds and a boatload of strings to change the muscularity of the piece from lean, wiry and flexible to something that could fill an auditorium with volume without losing much in the way of subtlety.

No matter how bracing the Dvorak work was, or how vivid Gabrielian’s playing in the concerto sounded, this arrangement was the most consistently impressive bit of music making on that day and at that venue.

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