City Opera: Intermezzo
Braids/ARMS/Neighbors @ Mercury Lounge

Better Than Wings

DSC03812Through an unexpected twist of fate, I've begun spending occasional weekends in Buffalo: that western New York city best known for the Bills, Ani DiFranco and Hot Wings. And, while Buffalo's musical offerings on tap aren't nearly as broad or rich as their cross-state rival, there are some real jewels in the rough, if you know where to look.

Take the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, whom I saw last Saturday at their longtime home, Kleinhans Music Hall. The orchestra, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, has had an impressive string of music directors over the years, including William Steinberg, Michael Tilson Thomas and, most notably, composer/conductor Lukas Foss, who, during his 8-year tenure, programmed more contemporary music than any orchestra in America, turning Buffalo into a veritable mecca for new music. 

The BPO's current music director is JoAnn Falletta, who was appointed in 1999 and remains one of only a handful of women leading major orchestras in this country. In 2009, her Naxos recording of John Corigiliano's "Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan"  won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition; in all, she and the BPO have recorded a dozen albums for the label. 

Walking in the doors of Kleinhans, situated in the middle of the leafy Elmwood neighborhood, I thought I'd mistakenly stumbled into a high school auditorium. The hall, designed in 1940 by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, was considered state-of -the-art at the time of its construction, and still claims to have some of the best acoustics of any concert hall in the country. But, with its plain walnut walls and narrow green metal folding seats, it isn't all that inspiring to look at. 

Fortunately, the orchestra itself was far stronger than one might expect from this isolated city on the shores of Lake Erie. The concert opened with a new work by Buffalo-native Philip Rothman, Arc of Visibility, inspired by the lighthouse beams that guide ships to safety. After some early promise, with startling glissandi in the cellos and brisk, clanging percussion, it unfortunately devolved into a muddle of Hollywood-sounding music. 

Following were a pair of Gershwin's works for piano and orchestra. No, not the Rhapsody in Blue, but the less known Concerto in F and Rhapsody No. 2, confidently played by the exciting young pianist Orion Weiss. While missing some of Blue's toe-tapping excitement, these lesser-known works still showed plenty of swing and verve, if lacking somewhat in substance.

The concert ended with William Schuman's New England Triptych: an evocative homage to Ives' Three Places In New England. Schuman, who divided his time between composing and serving as president of both Juilliard and Lincoln Center, has been unfairly overlooked, with a catalog of that includes ballets, choral music, and no fewer than ten symphonies. One of his best known works, New England Triptych was driving and sonorous, tender and brisk, with long lyrical lines and brilliant textures. Finally, here was music you could sink your teeth into. 

After spending so much time of late at Lincoln Center, a trip to hear this regional orchestra was sure to disappoint on some levels. But, for the folks that live in Buffalo, they should know that they have a real treasure in their backyard, offering them ready access to performances at the highest level of some of the great music of the past two centuries. 

Speaking of which, I'll be back again this Saturday for an excellent-sounding concert including Rautavaara's Isle of Bliss (1995), Elgar's Cello Concerto (with Lynn Harrell), and Brahms' 4th Symphony. Seems like a good way to stay out of the cold. 

More pics on Flickr.