This concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra had an interesting conception. It was made up of orchestral showpieces by Roussel, Ibert and Gottschalk, each with its own "island" inspiration. But the centerpiece of the concert was a new composition – the Concerto for Ukulele and Orchestra by the American composer Byron Yasui. Premiered in 2015, this may well be the world's first ukulele concerto; certainly, it’s one that seems far more appropriate for appearing on something other than an orchestra’s “pops” program.  It was first performed by ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro and JoAnn Falletta in Honolulu in June.  This BPO concert was its first performance outside Hawaii.

JoAnn Falletta © Cherly Gorski
JoAnn Falletta
© Cherly Gorski

The concerto, which carries the descriptive title “Campanella”, was composed by Yasui – himself a ukulele player and one of Shimabukuro’s teachers. Yasui has stated that he composed the concerto with Shimabukuro’s virtuoso talents in mind… and there’s no doubt that virtuoso fireworks were on full display in this performance. Throughout the concerto, the soloist rocked and swayed with the music, providing as much a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.

As for the music itself, I’d characterize it as “agreeably atonal”. The first movement, marked Allegro, was the most rhythmically agitated, with massive orchestral tuttis counterbalancing the ukulele’s solo passages. By contrast, the second movement Largo contained sustained sections of contemplative interplay between the solo ukulele and the harp, underscoring the concerto’s Campanella subtitle. Its quietly rhapsodic nature (save for two large orchestral crescendos) helped bring forth the transparent sounds that are natural to plucked instruments, and for this reason I found it the most successful of the concerto’s three movements.

Not that there wasn’t room for more rhapsodizing in the final Moderato movement as well. This movement also contained an extended cadenza for the ukulele, before ending with a brilliant orchestral flourish. The audience seemed to enjoy this most unusual of ukulele compositions, but they were even more receptive to the two solo encores Shimabukuro performed: arrangements of Bohemian Rhapsody and Schubert’s Ave Maria.

As cleverly conceived “island” complements to the new concerto, Falletta selected three splashy orchestral works that gave the Buffalo Philharmonic players the opportunity to shine in some highly colorful repertoire. First up were the Greek Islands with the second suite from the ballet Bacchus et Ariane by Albert Roussel. Composed in 1930, Roussel later made two suites out of the music. This music and his early ballet The Spider's Feast are arguably Roussel's most famous compositions. Bringing together the very best qualities of Roussel's mature compositional style, it’s superbly crafted music of great vitality and dazzling color, with an ending dance that rivals the conclusion of Ravel's second suite from Daphnis et Chloé.  

Falletta's interpretation of the music stressed its balletic genesis, while the Buffalo Philharmonic players delivered a transparent, beautifully balanced texture – a stimulating blend of colors that reminds us that this is music inspired by Greek mythology, classical purity in addition to hedonism (speaking of which, in the final bacchanal the orchestra was firing on all cylinders).

Jacques Ibert's Escales (Ports of Call) dates from 1922 and is one of the most sophisticated "travelogues" in classical music. Its three movements, portraying port locations in Italy, North Africa and Spain, are built on authentic melodies but clothed in opulent harmonies and lavish orchestration. Falletta and her Buffalo forces played this music to the hilt: impressionistic atmospherics in “Rome-Palermo”, a marvelous snake-charmer quality to the “Tunis-Nefta” movement, and then a riotous concluding “Valencia” that conveyed the Spanish accents of the music more than I’ve ever heard before.

To close out the program, Falletta selected the First Symphony, A Night in the Tropics, by the American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Composed in the late 1850s, when Gottschalk was working in the Caribbean region, it's less a symphony than an extended rhapsody in two very contrasting movements. Gottschalk's original score, housed in the New York Public Library, has been subject to several reconstructions over the years; the version performed by Falletta was done by Gaylen Haddon, and it’s probably the best one.

The symphony is an intoxicating brew of Creole, French, Afro-Cuban and other Caribbean musical styles, and it presages the development of ragtime and even jazz. In the first movement, a trumpet intones a languorous melody, beautifully played by the BPO’s soloist over the murmuring of the strings and the timpani rumble of a distant thunderstorm. The second movement fairly exploded with Caribbean rhythms in a samba-like dance. At times, Falletta stopped conducting altogether, allowing the infectious rhythms to carry the piece along on its own. It was an appropriately agreeable and festive ending to a concert that served as a brilliant showcase for some of the flashier scores in the orchestral repertoire.