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Listening to the inner voice

BPO guest soloist Roberto Diaz makes the viola sing

On May 20, the Harmonia Chamber Singers present their final concert of the season, A POET'S MUSE, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center

Photos courtesy of the BPO and Harmonia


Music Director JoAnn Falletta will be on the podium at Kleinhans Music Hall for two pairs of M&T Classics Series Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concerts during month of May. Both feature jam-packed programs of sonic masterpieces.


Berlioz goes to Italy

The May 4–5 concerts feature violist Roberto Diaz as soloist in Harold in Italy, a heart-on-your sleeve Romantic-era work for viola and orchestra by Hector Berlioz, last performed by the BPO in 1991. The audience at the Buffalo Chamber Music Society concert featuring the Diaz Trio this past November got a very good idea of Diaz’s musicianship when he was joined by his cellist brother Andrés and violinist Andrés Cárdenes for a warmly received performance of Mozart’s great Divertimento in E-flat major, K.563. An added attraction was that Diaz performed on a rare 1690 Stradivarius viola housed at the Library of Congress and owned by the Baird family of Buffalo. Diaz will play this same viola in Harold in Italy, which is a neat coincidence, since the Berlioz work owes its creation to a different Stradivarius viola.


The role of the viola, along with that of the second violin, is crucial. While first violins and cellos usually carry the melody as the outer voices, the second violin and the viola section add syncopation and harmony, providing the necessary inner voice counterpoint to outer voices. Be that as it may, composers have overwhelmingly favored the brilliant sound of the violin and the soulful sound of the cello when composing concerted pieces for orchestra.


That brings us to Niccolò Paganini, the greatest violin virtuoso of the first half of the nineteenth century. After hearing a performance of the Symphonie Fantastique, the work that made the reputation of Berlioz, Paganini visited the composer. As Berlioz relates in his memoirs, Paganini told him: “‘I have a wonderful viola, a superb Stradivarius instrument, which I would like to play in public. But I have no suitable music. Would you like to write a solo for viola?’ I tried therefore to please the celebrated virtuoso by writing a solo for viola, but one which involved the orchestra in such a way as not to reduce the effectiveness of the orchestral contribution.” Berlioz claims that he was inspired by Lord Byron’s epic poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” but, in reality, it was Italy itself, and the music he heard there after spending two years as a reward for winning the Prix de Rome, that inspired his composition.


After receiving the first movement, however, Paganini rejected the piece, saying that it did not feature the soloist prominently enough. Losing the commission did not deter Berlioz, as he went on to complete the work, which premiered in 1834, and has remained a favorite of violists ever since. When, four years later, Paganini finally heard the work conducted by Berlioz, he was so overwhelmed by it that, ever the showman, he went up on stage and knelt, while kissing the composer’s hand. Even better, he sent Berlioz a bank draft for 20,000 francs, a very significant sum at that time, a few days later.


Verdi’s intensely dramatic Overture to his opera La forza del Destino begins the program, while Giuseppe Martucci’s brief Notturno helps to lower the temperature before things explode with the final piece on the program, the wildly bold and brassy Roman Festivals, the last of the three tone poems that make up Ottorino Respighi’s Roman Trilogy, and a work that never fails to bring down the house with its ultra-exciting finale.


(l-r) Roberto Diaz plays Berlioz with the BPO this month; Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus music director, Adam Luebke


Carmina Burana: how to make medieval poetry exciting

On May 12–13, the BPO offers performances of Carl Orff’s most popular work, the hugely vibrant, scenic choral cantata Carmina Burana (1937), putting the spotlight on the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and its music director, Adam Luebke. The work has been described as “one of the few box office certainties in twentieth century repertoire in the United States.” Judging by the wildly enthusiastic receptions that it has received when JoAnn Falletta conducted it on three previous occasions, most recently in 2007, it is impossible to disagree. Based on a collection of twenty-four secular, mostly Latin poems from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, the highly colorful work deals, above all, with the fickleness of fortune and the ephemeral nature of life, making a compelling case for enjoying the sometimes mixed joys of eating, drinking, and yes, lust—as well as the universal joy of spring. BPO principal trumpet Alex Jokipii is the soloist in the BPO premiere of the recently composed Trumpet Concerto by the Finnish composer Jaakko Kuusisto, whose Violin Concerto was given a memorable BPO performance by Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä in 2015.


A Poet’s Muse

On May 20, the Harmonia Chamber Singers present their final concert of the season, A Poet’s Muse, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, featuring music inspired by the written word. Robert Giannetti, poet and narrator, presents poetry focused on the theme of the connectedness of all things, while artistic director Robert Pacillo leads the group in selections by Eric Whitacre, Stephen Paulus, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Edward Elgar. Roman Mekinulov, principal cellist of the BPO, is featured in several selections for choir and cello, including John Tavener’s mesmerizing Svyati and a new composition by Rob Deemer, SUNY Fredonia composer and Harmonia’s composer-in-residence. Information: harmoniacs.org


Westminster Friends of Music Gala

Director of Music Garrett Martin has done an impressive job of developing the choral potential of his singers at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The recent Grant Us Peace program of two choral masterpieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams was highlighted by superb singing in Dona Nobis Pacem by soprano Brianna Robinson, and baritone Tyler Mecklenburg, who was also the soloist in Five Mystical Songs. Westminster’s Friends of Music Gala, featuring great music, food, and friends on Friday May 4 at 7:30 p.m., at the Saturn Club, supports the residency of the choir at the Truro Music Festival in Cornwall, UK. For tickets and information: wpcbuffalo.org .


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