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Shaham’s infectious glee, violin bring joy to BPO’s opening gala

Adele Anthony, Gil Shaham
Buffalo News

By Mary Kunz Goldman

The people who turned out Saturday night for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s season-opening gala — a sold-out house, I heard — sure got their money’s worth. After music director JoAnn Falletta led the hall in singing the National Anthem, the concert got rolling with the renowned violinist Gil Shaham playing Pablo de Sarasate’s famous Fantasy on themes from Bizet’s “Carmen.”

And as if one great violinist were not enough, his wife, Adele Anthony, joined him in Bach’s sublime Concerto for Two Violins. After that, Shaham and Anthony rewarded the passionate applause with a generous encore, Sarasate’s “Navarra,” a bonbon off their new CD.

Then there was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, chorus, soloists and all. And after that, for the hardy, there was the Martini Mingle in the Mary Seaton Room. They are probably still there!

The concert, titled “Ode to Joy,” was on the schizophrenic side. It was odd to go from the breathless froth of the Sarasate to getting your heart torn out by the Beethoven Ninth. But what the heck, the season-opening gala is supposed to be a little over the top. And the audience loved it.

Shaham was a joy from the moment he stepped out on stage. Somewhere along the line he picked up a manic sense of humor. His “Carmen” Fantasy had a mischievous flair. His eyes and his grin were wide and you could see both, I am sure, all the way from the back of the hall.

He knows how to handle dynamics. He would drop from a forte into a whispery quiet, then continue that quiet, with an irresistible delicacy and another flash of that crazed smile. Hyper and wild, he seemed mindless of the piece’s difficulty. He loves what he is doing, loves the music, loves to play. There is no faking that.

His glee and virtuosity were such that at one point, people burst into spontaneous applause and by the end people were laughing unashamedly. Strangers were smiling at each other. That is what this guy does. Shaham’s wife has a more low-key kind of charm, a good foil for him. They played the Bach wonderfully together. Shaham often caught her eye, smiling that puckish grin, egging her on. The slow movement, one of the most romantic pieces of music of all time, had a marvelous tenderness.

As an encore the two of them flung themselves into the “Navarra,” off their new Sarasate CD. This was maniacal, delightful and dizzying from the word go. What a team they are, playing together, breathless and unstoppable. It was a terrific display.

Odd, as I said, to sober up after that for that first movement of the Beethoven Ninth. For that buzzing sound that begins it—scholars say it was what the deaf Beethoven heard in his head. For the delicate interplay of the woodwinds.

The scherzo was tense and focused. The caressing slow movement was a highlight, unfolding with the utmost seriousness and care.

The last movement, what everyone was waiting for, did not disappoint. Bass Kevin Deas, intoning that all-important first vocal line, commanded attention. He and the other singers — soprano Christina Nassif, mezzo soprano Jeniece Golbourne and tenor Israel Lozano — had the kind of power and presence the symphony demands. The chorus treated the “Ode to Joy” with power and finesse, with carefully shaped dynamics and fine moments of drama.