Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Buffalo, New York - The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
The Rachmaninoff Festival

With energetic JoAnn Falletta conducting, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was in good form on a brisk October Sunday afternoon performing Part 2 of its Rachmaninoff Festival. The ominous "The Isle Of the Dead" opened the concert, based upon a gloomy painting by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin of a boat carrying a coffin to an island. Beautiful and melancholy at the same time, an unhurried lament that gathered steam and led to Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op 1, with soloist, Gabriela Martinez from Caracas, Venezuela, exhibiting long, graceful arms - reminding me of Swan Lake as she dazzled us on the keyboards. A Julliard grad, she has performed as soloist and chamber musician in more than 50 concert halls throughout the world. Watching her at the piano and the first violin at her side, both tall, blonde and pony-tailed - was a thrill as they demonstrated artistry with fervor and flair.

The second part of the program featured "The Bells," a choral symphony inspired by the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The stage was quite crowded with the full orchestra along with the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, clad black and three vocal soloists who weighed in - Rebecca Nash, soprano, Charles Reid, tenor, and Darren Stokes, bass, all strong vocalists, but their voices often muffled by the huge chorus, the lyrics sometimes hard to decipher, not as crisp as one would like.


There was a touching bass quartet tribute to the late BPO bass player William Burns - "Ten Thousand Sorrows" by the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez.

JoAnn Falletta in the program notes, provides us with some wonderful information on Rachmaninoff's World and his connection to Buffalo, New York -

"Beyond words, beyond painting, music can sometimes conjure a past world so vividly that we can experience an earlier time as strongly as if we had lived through it ourselves. No history books seem necessary; the wordless language serves as a visa that transcends both physical and temporal barriers.

Such is the case with the extraordinary art of Sergei Rachmaninoff and this is why we are devoting an extraordinary two weeks of concerts to his music. Acclaimed internationally as the greatest pianist of his time, lauded worldwide as composer and conductor, a peripatetic expatriate for twenty-six years, Rachmaninoff in his heart never left nineteenth century Russia. Even in music written as late as 1940, he created for us an unforgettable journey back in time - to the extravagant world of Czarist Russia.

Russia for Rachmaninoff remained frozen as he knew if before he fled with his wife and daughters in 1917 - as the Romanov empire of Nicholas and Alexandria, a dynasty of opulence, intrigue, glamour, madness and tragedy. Under the double eagle of the czar flourished the dark landscape that nourished Rachmaninoff's soul - so much so that he continued to preserve that dying epoch for decades afterwards, from half a world away.

Born in 1873, Rachmaninoff is the last of the great Romanticists, although he lived well into the time of musical modernism. He is often thought of as the direct successor to Tchaikovsky, sharing his Russian predecessor's gift for unforgettable melody, melancholy, haunting harmonic invention, deep emotional expression and rich orchestration.

His fifty-year career began in 1890, when the seventeen-year-old Moscow Conservatory student composed his first piano concerto, and closed in 1940 with the dark and sumptuous Symphonic Dances, written in New York (and partially orchestrated in Buffalo, while Rachmaninoff was staying at the Lenox Hotel preparing for his Kleinhans recital.)

Carrying on the tradition of Rimsky- Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff created a sonorous musical world that always spoke eloquently and expressively of his love for his homeland. It is interesting that while his numerous modernist detractors are hardly remembered today, Rachmaninoff's music speaks to audiences with compelling power, rich nostalgia, dazzling virtuosity, and overwhelming passion.

With a dark-hued beauty, grave nobility and tender melancholy, Rachmaninoff has painted for us the bittersweet soundscape of Czarist Russia, as it lived, cherished and preserved, in the garden of his heart's memory.


Several years ago I was walking through a quiet country cemetery near the small village where I lived in Westchester. I came upon a grassy triangle - simple, unpretentious and well kept. To my astonishment I discovered it was the grave of Rachmaninoff, his wife, and daughter, Irina - a final resting place as far away from Russia as one could imagine. Even upon his death his restless heart could not return home."

Kleinhans is dated but has what JoAnn Falletta calls "Scandinavian simplicity," and the acoustics remain terrific, a good place to appreciate classical music. The Music Hall (3 Symphony Circle) is easy to get to. Once across the Peace Bridge, turn left on Porter Ave., and follow Porter just past D'Youville College. (5 minutes) There is a large parking lot on site, but we parked for free on a side street.

Gabriela Martinez, Christian Vasquez, Rachmaninoff Piano concerto No 2

JoAnn Falletta talks about the SSO, Buffalo Phil, and serious music

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