Under its music director JoAnn Falletta, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has established something of a reputation in America for programming neglected scores from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this concert, the majority of the program was taken up by a real rarity: the two Antoine et Cléopâtre suites of French composer Florent Schmitt – 45 minutes of music composed in 1920 as incidental music for a Paris production of Shakespeare’s play. Schmitt later refashioned the music into two three-movement suites, both of which were performed by the BPO this weekend. The performances were the North American world première for the complete score, taking place 95 years after its composition.

The musical style of Florent Schmitt clearly marks him as a man of his time and place. Born eight years after Debussy and five years before Ravel, Schmitt was a contemporary of these French greats, although he would outlive both of them by decades. But Schmitt’s musical creations tended to be conceived on a grander scale than the works of his compatriots: musical frescoes, as it were – “full of tidal surges, anticipatory dread, and continuously unresolved climaxes” as one observer has noted. His ballet La Tragédie de Salomé is his best-known composition, and numerous other scores by Schmitt draw their inspiration from “orientalist” themes – biblical, historical or fictional.

 Antoine et Cléopâtre fits right into this mould; it is a theatrical vehicle through which Schmitt conjures up a heady brew of drama and orchestral color. The music held the BPO audience in its thrall throughout its entire 45-minute duration, even though this was surely the first time anyone in the audience was hearing the music live.

Watching the musicians in addition to hearing the music, it is clear that Schmitt’s score is quite challenging; the writing is very chromatic and rhythms are ever-changing. Moreover, themes are continually handed off from one instrument or section of the orchestra to others, which can pose special challenges of ensemble. Not only were these handled by JoAnn Falletta and the BPO players with great aplomb, in the sonic splendor of Kleinhans Music Hall the inner voices and orchestral embellishments could be heard clearly.

Each of the movements has their special appeal.  In the opening movement of the first suite, Schmitt presents musical portraits of the authoritative Antony and the beguiling Cleopatra and then blends these two very different portraits in a way that symbolizes the fatal attraction that will lead to their doom.

In the first movement of the second suite (“Night in the Palace of the Queen”), Schmitt intones an achingly gorgeous solo, beautifully played by the BPO’s English horn soloist. The effect was so mesmerizing, you could hear a pin drop in the audience. In the thrilling “Orgies and Dances” that followed, Falleta’s conception turned this movement into the most exciting orgy or bacchanal music I’ve ever heard – leaving Saint-Saëns, Turina, Ravel and Roussel totally in the dust.

Mention should be made of the BPO brass and percussion players, too. Not only did they acquit themselves forcefully in the second movement of the first suite (an extended fanfare), they really let forth in the “Battle of Actium” movement, navigating particularly difficult passages with precision accuracy while also delivering tremendous power and excitement. 

In a clever programming move underscoring the musical connection between America and France in the 1920s, the second half of the concert was devoted to Gershwin’s Concerto in F. The soloist was the French-Canadian pianist Alain Lefèvre – and it was no routine performance. His approach to the concerto was bold and brawny, tempered with great felicity in all the right places. And when the big Romantic moments came, Lefèvre and the orchestra brought them forth in a blaze of glory.

In the frenetic third movement, Lefèvre, Falletta and the BPO delivered a veritable perpetuum mobile of sound, with barely a letup as the concerto whipped along to its final bars and the famous F major six-chord that ends the piece. In this movement, Lefèvre’s assault on the piano was such that the poor instrument’s action had difficulty keeping up with him.

Overall, intonation and ensemble work were very tight (with the exception of several missed high trumpet notes in the second movement). The result was a performance that was terribly exciting, but without the problems that can occur when throwing caution to the winds. Following the concerto, Lefèvre treated the appreciative audience to an encore – one of his own solo piano compositions. It was a nice complement to the Gershwin, albeit in a vastly different style.