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Lady in red dispatches Dvorak concerto with confidence, control and whimsy

Back from Poland, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is getting back into the swing of things.

It must be disorienting, especially with April looking more like January. Before the Friday morning coffee concert, you could see musicians making their way through the falling snow toward Kleinhans Music Hall, toting their instrument cases. Such as been the scene countless times over the decades -- but not that often this late in the year.

Well, if the snow gave the musicians a chilly welcome home, the audience made up for that right away with a big warm Buffalo round of applause.

It was an emotional moment, and several folks expressed regrets that JoAnn Falletta, the orchestra's music director, was not on hand to share it. Falletta is busy this weekend performing "Carmina Burana" with the Virginia Symphony. We have a guest conductor, Ward Stare.

After a few minutes, I do not think anyone had a problem with that. Stare is the music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. This was his BPO debut. He made an immediate good impression.

The Three Dances from Bedrich Smetana's "The Bartered Bride," which opened the concert, had an irresistible lilt. Light music like this is not as easy as you think to pull off, and Stare did the honors with aplomb. Young and slim, he cut a captivating figure, conducting with infectious enjoyment. His movements were conservative. At times, he barely moved his baton. But he felt the music and expressed that, rising onto his toes and occasionally hopping into the air -- a bit like Falletta, when you think about it.

A burst of illicit applause followed the first dance. Stare went with it, humorously acknowledging the cheers.

More delight followed when violinist Tessa Lark emerged from the wings to perform Antonin Dvorak's Violin Concerto.

Never underestimate the power of a drop-dead red gown. The crowd actually gasped, she looked so gorgeous. Please don't call me superficial for pointing that out. By dressing beautifully, a soloist amps up the excitement before the concerto even starts. Proper attire shows respect for the occasion and hints at greatness to come.

Lark lived up to those expectations. It was clear right away that this concerto was in very good hands, as she sailed through the first movement, carrying off those high notes with confidence and control.

At the same time, the lady in red was not a grandstanding musician. She communicated deep concentration. The Adagio was the highlight. Lark showed a glorious legato singing tone in that sublime opening theme, and gave just the right whimsical touch to the trilling birdsong that comes a bit later. She has a stellar sense for dynamics. The orchestra and Stare added to the music's loveliness and delicacy.

Gypsy spirit shined in the concluding Allegro. With its romping syncopation, this movement always reminds me of Johannes Brahms.

The concert culminates with Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 4, the "Tragic." Stare and the BPO worked well together and the music was on point, with crisp silences and a nice nervous energy. The sound was rich, but balanced.

As you listen and enjoy, it's touching to watch the individual musicians on stage. They all seemed rapt. If they were, it might be because they don't get to play this music much. For all his greatness, Schubert is not heard much at Kleinhans. This particular symphony was last performed here in 1964, when it was conducted by Lukas Foss.

The symphony's resolute ending won enthusiastic applause. I think all of us went back out into the snowy day feeling warmed and inspired.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Mary Kunz Goldman, Buffalo News
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