This weekend’s concerts by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra were noteworthy in that one of the anchor works was Florent Schmitt’s rarely heard suite from the ballet Oriane et le Prince d’Amour. Dating from 1933-34, it represents Schmitt’s last foray into the world of “orientalism,” whose riches he had mined over a period of nearly 40 years. Falletta and the BPO have now presented three of Schmitt’s four big works in this realm – the others are La Tragédie de Salomé and Antoine et Cléopâtre, leaving only Salamm yet to be done.

JoAnn Falletta, Konrad Skolarski and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra © Enid Bloch
JoAnn Falletta, Konrad Skolarski and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
© Enid Bloch

Like Cléopâtre, Oriane was a commission from Ida Rubinstein, the famed dancer and dramatic actress who introduced numerous productions to the Parisian stage during the 1920s and 30s featuring new music by Ravel, Stravinsky and others. The luridly overheated story-line of Oriane was as tailor-made for Rubinstein as it was for Schmitt’s special brand of musical creativity –  so effective as it was in evoking “sensuality as defilement”, as arts critic Steven Kruger so aptly describes it.

This weekend’s Oriane performances may be the first ones ever presented in North America. The orchestral suite makes up less than half of the complete ballet’s music (which also features a mixed chorus à la Daphnis). The ominous distant fanfares that open the suite –  played by the Buffalo brass players with all the sense of anticipatory dread one could possibly imagine –  were followed by the yearning and achingly gorgeous love music from Act 2 of the ballet in which the BPO strings, woodwinds and horns blended beautifully, fairly wallowing in the lush atmospherics.

The second part of the suite comes from Act 1 – a hyper-energetic portrayal of the rich Mongolian merchant’s retinue, replete with the bitonality and jagged rhythms that are such trademarks of this composer. Falletta shaped this über-brilliant music ingeniously, heightening contrasts between the frenetic dances and softer, yearning interludes. The famous Buffalo brass did the score proud with stentorian trumpets leading the charge, while the tuneful percussion – there are heaps of it in the score – added just the right splash of color. In short, the BPO's performance of this showpiece throbbed with passion and visceral excitement.

Preceding Oriane on the program was another work by Schmitt, his Légende, Op. 66. It’s best-known as a saxophone composition, but Schmitt also prepared other arrangements for violin and viola. The piece, which  featured BPO concertmaster Nikki Chooi, is moody and rhapsodic. Chooi’s interpretation took the generally dark colors of the music and gave them a special sheen. The most successful interpretations of Légende are all about sustaining the atmospherics, that that was certainly the case tonight.

The first half of the program opened with Debussy’s Prélude a l’après-midi d’une faune, in which the Buffalo players turned in an uncommonly effective interpretation. From principal flautist Christine Bailey Davis’ opening solo through to the oboe, clarinet, horn and other winds, this exquisite Faune positively shimmered with transcendent beauty.

The final work on the program was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, featuring Polish pianist Konrad Skolarski as soloist. Skolarski possesses all the technical chops one needs for tackling this concerto with aplomb – but he has something more: a probing musicality that resulted in sometimes surprising departures from the conventional dynamics and treatment of the inner voices. Nearly all of these choices worked. The result was a singular and highly memorable performance that elicited such positive audience reaction that the pianist responded with not one, but two encores: more Rachmaninov – the C minor and G minor preludes from the Op.23.

*****