Mozart’s road trip ends gloriously in Buffalo with BPO this weekend

29 January 2023

JoAnn Falletta, as the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s Music Director, with her committee, picks the music for the year ahead and, for the annual Mozart Birthday concerts, this year has cleverly given us a look at 22-year-old Mozart’s big road trip to Paris, to, from, and back home. Because Mozart didn’t actually land a permanent position in Paris (he apparently was a bit picky) and so ended up back home in Salzburg where his dad had to get him a job, he was sorely disappointed. But his loss is our gain.

Nikki Chooi | Photo: Wikimedia Commons
But over a short period in 1778 and 1779 around that trip, Mozart wrote a lot, including three iconic pieces that are audience favorites and are in heavy rotation at WNED Classical. In 1778 he wrote his Symphony No. 31 now known as the “Paris” symphony, using a larger-than-usual for Mozart but “business as usual for Paris” orchestra (a symphony where he first used clarinets). While on the road he visited Mannheim, Germany, which had a famous orchestra and a new style of “concerto-symphony” with more than one soloist. Always eager to try the latest trends, in 1779 he wrote his “Sinfonia Concertante” for two soloists, violin and viola (at the BPO featuring Concertmaster Nikki Chooi and Principal Violist Caroline Gilbert). And then, later in 1779, back home in Salzburg, Austria, he wrote an Easter Mass, which was used over the years for several coronations, and became known as the “Coronation Mass.”

Caroline Gilbert | Photo: @darioshoots | Photos courtesy Caroline Gilbert
I try in this space to tip you off to really special performances that you will enjoy and this concert is one of those. Certainly, the audience at Kleinhans Music Hall was ready to enjoy themselves after the New Year’s break and the Christmas Blizzard and the mood in the hall was electric. I had been looking forward to the “Sinfonia Concertante” for months because of the two soloists. Concertmaster Nikki Chooi is a treasure and because his position gives him a lot of opportunities to show off his chops, you may already know that. What you might not know is that BPO Principal Violist Caroline Gilbert is right there with him, note for note. Those of us who attend smaller chamber music concerts around town have been completely blown away by this best-advocate-for-the-viola-ever musician. With a few exceptions, violas don’t often get big solos in orchestral music, and if you didn’t know, I’m telling you. She’s the real deal.

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So you’ve got these two instruments, the higher-pitched violin and the lower-pitched viola, sometimes in unison, sometimes imitating each other, sometimes in a sort of “Oh yeah? Listen to this!” contest. I had a mental image of two eagles with locked talons in that “death spiral” you may have seen.

It’s apparently used by eagles for both courtship and fighting and that seems about right. Whatever the eagle’s motivation, it’s fun to watch, and this 3-movement work by Mozart was fun to listen to, and according to the musicians, was a lot of fun to play. They certainly looked as if they were having a hoot.

I was particularly impressed by the orchestra which really went out of its way to support its colleagues. Yeah, sure, they’re professional musicians and are always good, but here they were perfection. And the sudden dynamic changes that Falletta used just added to the excitement.

The second half of the concert was a superb performance of the “Coronation” Mass. Now, if you think that religious music is boring, you really have to hear this piece. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (prepared by their Music Director Adam Luebke) was explosive and all four soloists were on point, including two of my favorites, Fredonia’s Lynne McMurtry, contralto, and BPO favorite Kevin Deas, bass-baritone. Sometimes higher voices can be problematic. Not here, now now. Rachel Mikol, soprano and Gene Stenger, tenor, blended their very listenable voices beautifully.

When you go, stop by the table in the lobby and pick up the schedule for the just announced 2023-2024 Classics season, which will feature favorite violinists Gil Shaham, Tianwa Yang, and Tessa Lark. Favorite pianists included Alexander Malofeev, Fabio Bidini, Ying Li, and Steward Goodyear. And, there will be even more soloists from the orchestra, including principals Natalie Debikey Scanio, piccolo; Henry Ward, oboe; Roman Mekinulov, cello, and, in a concert titled “Chooi Brothers and Bach” we’ll get both Nikki Chooi and his kid brother, Timothy.

Every year WNED Classical holds a poll for favorite works and over the years the #1 spot has gone between Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.” Well, next season you’ll get both from the BPO including Mahler’s sweeping “Resurrection Symphony.”