Sometimes one goes to an orchestra concert mainly for entertainment and enjoyment, to revel in the sounds of the familiar. Other times, one goes to be challenged, to experience something with fresh ears and ultimately learn something new in the process.
Saturday’s Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra program, “Classical Sax,” was a satisfying combination of both. With Music Director Joann Falletta making a snowbird appearance with the Sarasota Orchestra, guest conductor Thomas Wilkins led an interesting program mixing standard fare with lesser-heard gems. Of particular interest was the live premiere of Kenneth Fuchs’ "Rush"- Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, which earned Falletta her third Grammy Award in 2018, with the London Symphony Orchestra.
As undeniably brilliant as that Naxos recording is, sometimes it takes a live performance for a musical work to make its full impact, particularly in the flawless acoustics of Kleinhans Music Hall. Fuchs’ output includes many works for wind band, and "Rush" showcases his mastery of the alto saxophone’s versatility in a symphonic setting. World-renowned saxophonist Timothy McAllister's brilliant, crowd-pleasing performance was equal parts rock-star swagger and supremely polished musicianship.
Following the full-blast intensity and crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics of "Rush," the more restrained tone and mellower lyricism of Aleksandr Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto came across as somewhat anticlimactic (the program’s first half would have been far more effective if the Fuchs and Glazunov were reversed). Nevertheless, McAllister’s refined performance was as good as saxophone playing gets, a masterclass in phrasing and another reminder of this instrument’s full dramatic and musical range.
The second half combined African American composer George’s Walker’s elegant “Lyric for Strings” with Felix Mendelssohn’s ever-popular “Italian” Symphony, an ideal showcase of Wilkins’ masterful rapport with the BPO.
As a professor of orchestral conducting at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, Wilkins is, indeed, an ideal model for aspiring conductors, with his demonstrative, clear baton technique and an understated yet unquestionably commanding presence. His minimal approach was perfect for the Mendelssohn, letting the music speak for itself and the spotlight shine brightest on the orchestra. The tarantella-charged final movement has rarely sounded so effortless, earning well-deserved ovations. What a pleasure it is to see the BPO running on all cylinders, especially in standard repertoire that often sounds hackneyed in lesser hands.
The evening’s “Classical Sax” theme extended to a brilliant pre-concert performance by the SUNY Fredonia Saxophone Ensemble and chamber groups, expertly led and coached by professor Wildy Zumwalt. The committed, professional-caliber performance of these young musicians would bode well for future opportunities to showcase the saxophone with the BPO.