When faced with a project that appears a bit too ambitious, sometimes all it takes is a little extra push. That certainly seems to be the story behind the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s May 8 Spring for Music Festival program at Carnegie Hall, which pairs Russian composer Giya Kancheli’s “Morning Prayers” from Life Without Christmas with his elder countryman Reinhold Glière’s massive Symphony No. 3, “Ill’ya Muromets.” Naxos had previously tried to enlist the BPO to record Glière’s 110-minute-plus work, Music Director JoAnn Falletta recalls, “and we had been hesitant only because of the size and endurance of the piece.” But keeping in mind the Spring for Music imperative of adventurous programming, and the BPO’s affinity for Russian music, Falletta decided the Glière was the perfect piece to play to the orchestra’s strengths while also challenging them.
Buffalo’s story is a prime example of the Spring for Music spirit. Devised by Thomas W. Morris, David V. Foster, and Mary Lou Falcone and inaugurated in 2011, Spring for Music challenges orchestras from around the country to devise adventurous programs without the time and budget constraints of a typical season. Six or seven have been chosen each year, and presented in a week of concerts at Carnegie Hall with all tickets priced affordably at $25 apiece. The Albany, Baltimore, Detroit, and National symphony orchestras join the Buffalo Philharmonic in this year’s festival, which runs May 6-11. (For more on Spring for Music’s inaugural festival, check out Rebecca Winzenried’s article “Spring Forward” in the Spring 2011 issue of Symphony.)
Buffalo’s involvement in Spring for Music is having a much broader impact on the orchestra and the city that just a single concert. Falletta decided to construct the orchestra’s 2012-13 season around a Russian theme, beginning with a short Glière stage opera, Gyul’sara, and including Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, and works by Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff, all building to the Glière performance at Carnegie. “Spring for Music challenged us in a lot of ways,” says Falletta. “It challenged us to do a piece that we wouldn’t normally do, but it also challenged us to get the community involved and bring them down to Carnegie. At first that seemed daunting, but it has brought our community together and brought our fans closer to us in a way that’s been phenomenal.” Even the Glière family wrote to the orchestra to thank them for performing the Third Symphony, a work that is so seldom heard despite being well-loved by an older generation of Russians. The Philharmonic is hoping to capitalize on the “magnet of attention” the piece provides, reaching out to invite Russian-speaking audiences in the New York City area with a Russian-language flier developed in part by BPO Principal Cellist Roman Mekinulov.
“Spring for Music challenged us to do a piece that we wouldn’t normally do, but also to get the community involved. It has brought our community together and brought our fans closer to us in a way that’s been phenomenal.” –JoAnn Falletta
Though not an initial raison d’etre of Spring for Music, that type of cultural ambassadorship has become a big part of it. “Buffalo succeeds when our cultural constituents succeed,” says Peter Eliopoulos, chief marketing officer of M&T Bank, the BPO’s lead sponsor for the Carnegie visit. Eliopoulos notes that M&T has been a staunch supporter of the BPO since Robert G. Wilmers took over as chairman and CEO of the bank in 1983, making support of Buffalo’s cultural institutions a pillar of his community mission. But when the Philharmonic approached M&T for additional support for its trip to Carnegie, Eliopoulos says they were intrigued by the opportunity “to do a work, the Glière Symphony, that doesn’t get performed often because of its massiveness and length. And we thought it was intriguing that JoAnn had been invited back to her hometown with her Buffalo Philharmonic.” The bank put up the $100,000 that became the cornerstone of the orchestra’s “Road to Carnegie Hall” campaign.
The Buffalo Philharmonic’s performance, along with those of the Albany Symphony and Spring for Music 2014 participant Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, offers Big Apple residents a taste of the cultural offerings from upstate. “If you have any feel for these smaller New York cities, whether it’s the Bills playing down in the New York City area or the Philharmonic going to Carnegie, the community takes enormous civic pride in this,” says Eliopoulos. “There are marvelous things to love and appreciate about both parts of our state and everything in between. But there is no shying away from the fact that the city of Buffalo feels this is a big deal.”
“Whether it’s the Bills playing down in the New York City area or the Philharmonic going to Carnegie, the community takes enormous civic pride in this.” –Peter Eliopoulos.
A native New Yorker, Falletta remembers being able to “hear everything” in the city, but notes that due to its distance, Buffalo is “not the kind of place where people can easily travel to hear the Philharmonic. They hear us a great deal on CD, but they don’t hear us live. I think we’re very aware of having to prove ourselves, to come to Carnegie and play live for an audience that’s been wondering what’s been going on in Buffalo.”
“From the very first rehearsal back in September I think there was a different energy. People were saying, ‘OK, now it’s time to really hone our skills because this is a big year for us.’ That’s what Spring for Music did for us. I don’t know if they even intended to give us the tool, to stretch ourselves artistically in such a positive way, or to have us look at repertoire differently. But however they thought about this, they really have opened up a new window for the Buffalo Philharmonic in terms of how we think of ourselves.”
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