JoAnn Falletta has earned a reputation for championing lesser-known repertoire. This concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was no exception, including fascinating French repertoire presented alongside a famous violin concerto. In a nod to traditional programming practice, the evening opened with an overture – but in this case it was a relative rarity by Germaine Tailleferre. She was a member of Les Six, and this 1931 composition is highly representative of the fresh, often-lighthearted appeal of the music of those composers. The high-spirited Ouverture has rhythmic verve in spades; it’s probably as much fun to play as it is to hear. Falletta treated the music with snap and flair, imbuing the performance with infectiously good humor.

Sarah Chang © Colin Bell
Sarah Chang
© Colin Bell

The French theme continued – this time dipping back a generation with two pieces by Florent Schmitt. Falletta is a fervent Schmitt advocate, referring to him as “the most important French composer you’ve never heard of”. Musique sur l’eau (1898, orchestrated in 1913) gives us a glimpse of the extensive body of vocal material penned by Schmitt. Set to symbolist poetry and gorgeously written, it was given a rapturous performance by mezzo-soprano Susan Platts.  Her approach was delicate as well as passionate – a combination that can be tricky to pull off successfully in this genre. Very likely this was the work’s North American premiere performance, happening more than a century after its creation.

Dating from 1907, the ballet La Tragédie de Salomé is arguably Schmitt’s most famous work, and the 1910 version that the composer prepared for expanded orchestra has experienced renewed popularity in recent years. In North America alone, since 2010 the piece has been performed by the orchestras of Los Angeles, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Toronto and Mexico City. Tonight’s performance was the first time the music had been presented by the BPO.

And what music it is! Schmitt continues the finest tradition of French tone painting in it, while also delivering heaped doses of barbarism and bitonality in the piece’s more dramatic sections. Dedicated to Stravinsky and stunningly orchestrated, the ballet is acknowledged to have directly influenced the younger composer’s creation of Le Sacre du printemps. In the opening Prélude with its evocation of dusk on the terrace of King Herod’s palace, gorgeous impressionist sounds comingled with a sense of anticipatory dread. Anna Mattix’s English horn solo and the supporting woodwind passages were delivered to spellbinding effect. The Danse des perles that followed was taken at a brisk tempo – all gleaming brilliance leading up to a climax that was terrifically exciting.

From there on, the atmosphere grew darker and more ominous, and here Falletta chose the score’s vocal parts for Salome’s temptations of Herod, with Platts and supporting female voices joining the orchestra. The vocal treatment isn’t done often in concert, but this performance proved how effective it is to include it. In the final two sections – Danse des éclairs and Danse de l’effroi – Falletta whipped up tremendous fervor; brass and percussion were particularly effective, delivering punctuating rhythms and dramatic accents that were overwhelming in their impact. In the end, this passionate performance left no doubt that Salomé is one of the most impressive achievements results coming out of France’s Golden Age of classical music.

Following intermission, the orchestra was joined by violinist Sarah Chang in one of the most popular of all classical works. The Violin Concerto in D major by Brahms is familiar musical terrain – but also one of those works which sounds fresh and interesting no matter how many times it’s heard. Chang’s performance more than lived up to that reputation by presenting a soul-satisfying reading that worked on every level.

No matter this concerto’s considerable technical demands, the most impressive performances are the ones that come across as effortlessly beautiful. Chang’s violin sound is full-bodied, but with just the right touch of sweetness and sentimentality when Brahms calls for it. The piece has been characterized as “a song for the violin on a symphonic scale” (Hubert Foss, 1878), and Chang and Falletta delivered all this and more. The first movement cadenza was masterfully played, but equally impressive was the interplay between the soloist and orchestra throughout the movement; the dramatic flourishes were delivered with force but not strain.

That special chemistry continued in the Adagio – essentially one long string of melody – where Chang’s crystalline tones were matched to equal effect by principal oboist Henry Ward’s beautiful solo passages at the outset of the movement. As for the final movement’s Rondo, I know of no one who can resist its charms – particularly when played as joyfully as it was tonight. If there were any new converts to the Brahms concerto to be made in the concert hall, surely Sarah Chang’s performance did just that.

*****