In this week’s concert in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s Classics Series of pre-recorded streamed concerts, music director JoAnn Falletta conducted refined and elegant performances of historically diverse works for mostly string orchestra, with two less familiar composers balanced with Debussy and Mozart.

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Randall Goosby
© Bernd Gottinger

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Prologue and Variations (1984) was notable for the composer’s development of the the work’s melodically ascending theme, creating inventive variations from bits and pieces of the theme into an arresting whole. The piece, while tonal, has a strong sense of melancholy, sparse textures, and sometimes agitation that is reminiscent of Prokofiev’s more sinister passages. The variations merge from one to the next with marked differences in texture and dynamics. In this convincing performance, even the very soft conclusion was unsettling, seemingly without final resolution.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was the son of a French planter father and an African slave mother. Bologne was born in Guadeloupe, but his father relocated to Paris, to provide his son with a thorough musical education, despite the difficulties set for Joseph by his mixed race. Bologne’s talents as a violinist and composer drew favorable comparison with his contemporary, Mozart. Young American violinist Randall Goosby’s clear tone and limpid phrasing proved to be ideal in the BPO’s performance of Bologne’s Violin Concerto in G major, Op.8, no.2. Although Bologne’s music might not match Mozart’s genius, it still has much to offer, especially in the languid second movement, with Goosby’s unaffected, lyrical playing. A dramatic cadenza bridged the second to the third movement, a “rondeau”, in which the repeated main theme was separated by pauses between the intervening development. Goosby is a talent from whom we should hear much more.

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Randall Goosby, JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
© Bernd Gottinger

The BPO’s principal harpist Madeline Olson was featured in Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane. (Oddly, she was not credited in the orchestra’s program book available online.) This streamed performance was perhaps an ideal way to hear Debussy’s delicate textural combination of harp and string orchestra. Live acoustic performances always have issues of balance, especially in a large auditorium; in this case, sensitive management of levels at the sound board eliminated those problems. The intricate passages on harp merged with the sensuous string accompaniment – the work is clearly not a harp concerto. The “sacred” dance is billowy and cloud-like; the more fun “secular” dance is a lively waltz. Olson’s playing was first rate.

The concert closed with Mozart’s Symphony no. 29 in A major, with two oboes and two horns added to the string orchestra. Falletta’s reading had all of the virtues of the preceding works on the program: grace and elegance. The high points here were her delineation of the interior voices of the first movement, and a robust, energetic fourth movement. The third movement Minuet and Trio were almost too delicate.

The orchestra’s playing throughout the concert was excellent. It was, however, all very conservative, safe music of similar timbre and dynamics despite being composed in several musical eras. I was left wanting more variety. 

This performance was reviewed from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's video stream