Amid shutdowns and quarantines, when the world went unimaginably quiet, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra did what it does best: made beautiful music for the Western New York community and beyond.
It said, “Our living rooms became the concert hall as the BPO broke new ground, performing a full season of performances filmed and broadcast from Kleinhans.”
On Friday, maestro JoAnn Falletta and the musicians of the BPO presented a gift from that time: the orchestra’s newest audio recording, “Light in a Time of Darkness.” The collection contains six unique works chosen for their emotional depth and spirituality, originally performed and recorded as part of the 2020-21 season broadcast series, “BPOnDemand.”
“As we look back on the challenges of 2020 and 2021, we realize that music kept us emotionally alive,” Falletta said. “ ‘Light in a Time of Darkness’ was born from that time – a time that was for us intense, but also astonishingly beautiful, as it allowed us to learn and perform music we had never played, and communicate with each other in different ways. We hope that everyone in the Western New York community and beyond enjoys this musical expression of our heartfelt thanks.”
As described by the BPO, the recording begins with the enchanting “Fantasia on a Theme” by Thomas Tallis, written by 20th century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. In the work, he reaches back in time 400 years to revive a theme by Tallis, a towering genius of the late Renaissance period. The fantasia, however, is neither Renaissance nor 20th century in nature, but rather transcends time in a piece that is altogether mystical and beautiful.
Next, a feature of BPO English hornist Anna Mattix with “Pietà” by Ulysses Kay, a prolific African American composer of orchestral music, vocal music and operas during the 20th century. Kay won the prestigious Prix de Rome, received a Guggenheim fellowship, and a Fulbright scholarship, yet he remains a lesser known and not often performed composer. In fact, little is known about his “Pietà,” and it has never before been recorded. Mattix discovered it while conducting research for her work as a BPO teaching artist. The piece is full of pathos and sense of longing with glorious lyrical passages. What struck Mattix initially was the title, “Pietà,” which means “compassion” in Italian. In her words, the work is “an expression of love for one another as we move forward in our uncertain world.”
Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 6” follows, a staple of the Baroque repertoire. The concerto is very unusual in that it excludes the violin section. J.S. Bach wanted to showcase instruments that had just been developed, which included the viola di braccio, the “viola of the arm,” referring to the positioning of the instrument as we know it today, held with one arm extended along the neck and fingerboard, as opposed to its predecessor, viola da gamba, positioned on the leg. “Brandenburg No. 6” highlights Bach’s mastery of contrapuntal writing. In the first movement, two violas chase each other in a delightful round, performed by principal viola Caroline Gilbert and associate principal viola Anna Shmetyevah. The second movement is a shimmering adagio, and the third, a joyous gigue, a popular dance of the Baroque period.
Next, a work by 20th century American composer Wayne Barlow titled “The Winter’s Passed.” The piece is a gentle tribute to the coming of spring, a pastoral for oboe and strings featuring principal oboist Henry Ward. Barlow spent most of his life in nearby Rochester. He attended the Eastman School of Music where he became the first person in the U.S. to receive a Ph.D. in music composition. He joined the Eastman faculty in 1938, later becoming chair of the composition department until his retirement in 1978.
“Lyric for Strings” by American composer George Walker follows. Walker was remarkable for a string of firsts: he was the first African American graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, the first African American to perform a solo recital in New York’s Town Hall in 1945, the first African American to receive a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music in 1956, and in 1961, was the first tenured African American faculty member in any department at any American university. Perhaps his most profound accomplishment, in 1966, he was the first African American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music. He composed his “Lyric for Strings” when he was just 20 years old as a gentle and moving memorial to his beloved grandmother following her passing.
The recording closes with Franz Josef Haydn’s “Symphony No. 44 in E minor.” The work is nicknamed “Trauer,” German for “grief,” as Haydn requested that its quiet and serene third movement be played at his funeral. “Symphony No. 44” is filled with drama. Written in a minor key, it has a driving opening, sudden changes in dynamics, unexpected pauses, melodic leaps, syncopation, and a sense of overall restlessness that leads to its furious finale.
“Light in a Time of Darkness” is available for purchase at bpo.org, by calling the BPO box office at 716-885-5000, or visiting the BPO gift shop during performances.
Major support for the recordings included in “Light in a Time of Darkness” was provided by M&T Bank, Calspan, Elderwood, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and KeyBank. Government support was provided by Erie County and the New York State Council on the Arts.