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Buffalo News



Philharmonic: First in Stereo


By Herman Trotter


        Wait! Don’t switch channels, come Sunday about 7:30 p.m. when the New York Jets and New England Patriots have finally settled the issue of which team will continue in the NFL playoffs.  Leave your selector right on Channel 2.  You’ll see and hear a perfect antidote to athletic mayhem.  It’s the first stereo telecast ever produced here in Western New York and the subject is “Opening Night – a Season of Gold,” an absolutely absorbing documentary on the first concert of the Buffalo Philharmonic’s current 50th anniversary season.  In keeping with the Philharmonic’s skyrocketing status, this production is also big-league all the way. It takes you back to the evening of Sept. 21 and the unprecedented air of festivity that surrounded Kleinhans Music Hall as the orchestra’s new music director, Semyon Bychkov, prepared to open the season by spotlighting the orchestra itself in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.  Susan Banks hosts the program, which includes, tastefully interspersed throughout its two hours, brief but informative interviews by various Channel 2 staffers with Philharmonic chairman Gary Mucci, long-time orchestra prime-mover Robert I. Millonzi, corporate sponsor Samuel Cappiello of Merrill Lynch, and executive director Gary Good.  Kleinhans’ backstage manager Judy Gill also takes Barry Lillis on a tour behind the scenes, but the most substantive and engrossing commentary is by Bychkov during an intermission interview with Banks.  There is some biographical material on Bychkov, but the core is his commentary on the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, particularly its slow movement.  “It’s the focus of the symphony.  The rest complements it,” Bychkov says while playing the achingly-beautiful largo on the piano, going on in an extended voice-over to describe the pain the composer experienced during the Stalin purges and how it is reflected in the music.

       But don’t get the idea this program is all talk.  You’ll hear, without interruption, the entire Beethoven and Shostakovich symphonies, and see the orchestra from a vantage point you’ll never duplicate even in the best seat in the house.  The videotape was made by Phillip Byrd, an award-winning specialist in orchestra documentation.  As Byrd describes it, his camera people are not just outside observers.  “Effectively, they’re seven more musicians participating in the performance,” he says, “sitting in among the orchestra virtually as familiar with the score are the players.”  The result is spectacularly effective cutting and panning of the seven cameras so that the musical attacks you hear are complemented by precise visual attacks.  When the basses, trumpets or solo clarinet enter, the camera waits until that exact moment to show you the attack, adding a new dimension to the music’s natural excitement.  You’ll also see wonderful closeups of such sights as bass strings vibrating, harp strings plucked or a double image of the flute and horn as they answer one another in the Shostakovich.  The musicians’ techniques can also be observed close up, and perhaps most revealingly, you’ll be able to follow the emotional contour of the music as reflected in the face of Semyon Bychkov. This documentary will also be eye-opening to those who still cling to the belief that a conductor’s physical gestures are often just histrionics or affectation.  Over the course of this concert it will be apparent that Bychkov’s dynamic motions and facial expressions are not at all theatrical, but are an accurate mirror of his profound emotional involvement and a means of communicating in great depth with his musicians.