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Review: Florent Schmitt’s “Legende” and “Oriane et Le Prince D’Amour” with Debussy and Rachmaninoff—The Buffalo Philharmonic Under JoAnn Falletta

From New York Arts

By Steven Kruger

When it comes to its resident orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic similarly avoided an onslaught of concrete, continuing to perform in Kleinhans Music Hall, designed by the Saarinens (father Eliel and son Eero) in 1940 and declared a national landmark in 1989.

Kleinhans is set in a beautiful residential district, where it stands out dramatically like a cross between an egg and a hatbox reworked by aircraft engineers. Inside, light woods and simple swooping perspectives scream “streamlining.” Quite apart from its appearance, Kleinhans is one of the rare fan-shaped halls of the era which actually sounds worthy of its curves. Balances are close to perfect. Strings and winds come across in light cream and satin with lovely timbre for mood. The sonority coheres nicely on stage as a “ball of sound.” The hall has a short reverberation time, but this is only noticed on isolated chords. Buffalo has been lucky. This is a venue where one can build an orchestra’s sound, and I am happy to report the Buffalo Philharmonic under JoAnn Falletta has become a refined and precise instrument, similar in its general manner to the Cleveland Orchestra on home turf in Severance Hall, and a successful recording orchestra for Naxos, where it has carved out a niche for itself in neglected romantic repertory.

I was attending this concert with a group of like-minded Florent Schmitt enthusiasts, as it happens. The program included two Schmitt rarities. Phillip Nones, who diligently squires the Florent Schmitt website and follows Schmitt performances all over the world, joined JoAnn Falletta onstage for her pre-concert talk, which explored the many shades of impressionism and romance in music. Falletta delicately and literarily evoked the birds and the bees of a Satyr in Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, while Nones elicited a direct laugh from the audience in pointing out that Schmitt’s orientalist ballet heroines were always, shall we say, “questionable but fascinating”!

Speaking of musical romance is poetic, of course, but the music itself must prove one’s point. One could not have asked for a lovelier performance of the Debussy than Falletta achieved moments later, with leaves fluttering in the breeze, the sun on your neck in a forest glade, and a nimble flute making your nostrils flare with desire.

After so much dangerous romance on the first half, JoAnn Falletta was joined by Polish pianist Konrad Skolarski for the more well-behaved wooing ways of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. There are no satyrs, vicious vixens or dances of death in the piece, just sincere and beautiful evocation. This is the music, after all, which brought us the unconsummated love affair of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter. The Rachmaninoff is timeless—and still innovative structurally—as one of the first concertos where the piano and orchestra are not antagonists. Skolarski brought a bold romance to the music, sometimes interestingly eruptive in the left hand, but in no way eccentric. It concluded passionately to great applause, and Skolarski returned to perform the C minor and G minor preludes from Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 to equal audience satisfaction. I imagine and hope the orchestra will want to ask him back.

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