The Buffalo Philharmonic has a long tradition as a so-called “second tier” orchestra (first tier being the old “Big Five”: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Boston) with a history of important first-class conductors at its helm, including Steinberg, Krips, Foss, Rudel, Tilson Thomas and Bychkov.
A lot has changed over the years. The first-tier orchestras have grown to include several others around the country. And some regional groups (Sarasota Orchestra among them) have become first-rate ensembles.
But it’s Buffalo that reached out more than a decade ago and named JoAnn Falletta, a woman and one of the world’s premiere conductors, to lead. And, under her leadership, the orchestra is sounding better and better.
On Buffalo’s visit to the Van Wezel last week under the auspices of the Sarasota Concert Association, Falletta gave us a sense of polish, musicianship and what really great conducting can be.
After a somewhat shaky start with Rossini’s overture to “Semiramide,” the ensemble demonstrated its accompanying skills in the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto. The soloist, Fabio Bidini, showed great flair with just the right combination of percussive and romantic playing to make this a memorable account of Ravel’s nod to Gershwin, Stravinsky and Poulenc. Bidini’s Chopin encore was stunningly beautiful.
After intermission, Falletta, without the use of a score, led her orchestra in a dazzling reading of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2. This lushly romantic work is almost too beautiful and sumptuous to endure with its extravagantly passionate, dense, rich and opulent harmonies and melodies. But Falletta has no rough edges, and her phrases are so smooth and clear, she opens the density of the harmonic structure, turning Rachmaninov into the polished glass of a Steuben sculpture. Best of all, her transitions (and there are many in this symphony) seem sewn together with invisible stitches. She is a remarkable leader, and Buffalo is fortunate to have her.
— June LeBell
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