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Buffalo Philharmonic opens season celebrating 20 years of JoAnn Falletta

Like the proverbial fine wine, maestra JoAnn Falletta's relationship with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra gets better with age.

And there were plenty of reasons to raise a glass during the BPO's season opener, "Favorites and Friends," celebrating Falletta's 20th year at the podium. While the concert title presumably referred to the evening's starry roster of guest soloists, it could just have easily applied to the warm relationship and tightknit bond Falletta has cultivated with the Buffalo audience, who rewarded the music director with a standing ovation upon her entrance.

With gala events such as this, it would have been easy to toss off the usual light celebratory musical fare that goes down easy with the free champagne. Not Falletta and the BPO. Saturday's challenging program was an ideal testament to the BPO's rise to worldwide prominence over the last two decades. In place of the overly familiar "William Tell" and "Barber of Seville," Rossini's overture to "Semirande" was an intriguing concert opener, showcasing the BPO's glorious woodwinds and French horns.

The Saint-Saëns "Rondo Capriccioso" is the calling card of many a violin virtuoso, yet few perform it with the effortless grace and rock-solid intonation that soloist Tianwa Yang displayed on Saturday night. An single encore from a Bach violin sonata held the audience spellbound – this is the kind of musical maturity and expression one would expect from artists far older and more experienced.

[More: A look at 20th anniversary season | Review of new BPO album]

Showing Falletta's knack for inspired concert programming, the thunderous, demonic blows of Liszt's "Totentanz" that followed was a perfect foil to the lighter Saint-Saëns. A massive set of variations on the "Dies Irae" chant, the "Totentanz" makes titanic technical demands on the pianist, and here the internationally acclaimed William Wolfram proved more than up to the task, eliciting gasps of delight from the audience by the end.

The second half was devoted to Dvorak's "Symphony no. 8 in G Major," a perfect showcase of the BPO's polished tone and tight precision. Rather than her usual brisk tempi, here Falletta's deliberate, almost restrained pacing from the podium allowed her to indulge in Dvorak's gorgeous melodies and orchestrations. The measured approach of the first three movements paid big dividends in the Slavonic-dance inspired finale where Falletta and BPO let loose in a blazing fireworks display of sound.

As with any major milestone, it's easy to revel in all Falletta has accomplished with 20 years. A glance at the hugely ambitious upcoming season, and it's safe to say that Falletta and the BPO might just be getting started. A toast to many, many more years with Falletta as BPO music director.


Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's "Favorites and Friends"

Sept. 21 at Kleinhans Music Hall

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