Reviewed by Lee Shepherd
We were expecting surprises at the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Halloween concert Saturday (Oct. 31), billed as full of chills and thrills. But no one expected this: A vampire playing diabolical music on the Robert Morton Theater Organ as it rose out of the orchestra pit in a cloud of smoke. Whipping off his cape and mask, the organist was none other than Maestro Jose-Luis Novo who, added to his other talents, can really play the organ.
The whole evening was like that, filled with Romantic Era music written to scare us, take us to extremes of emotions and shock us right down to our socks.
As violinist Ubaldo Valli explained in his pre-concert talk, these works were written in reaction to the balanced, rational music of the 18th century “enlightenment.”  Newer instruments abounded, with greater ranges. Musicians played in bigger ensembles, in bigger halls, presenting works written to appeal to the middle classes (not the aristocracy). Music evolved into compositions with a huge color palette.
Saturday night, the BPO program ranged from the Bernard Hermann’s score to the film Psycho to Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold” from Symphonie Fantastique, each chosen for its goose bump-inducing qualities.
To set the scene, there were “cobwebs” stretched over the orchestra pit and “ghosts” hanging above the orchestra. At intermission, the musicians donned costumes, and many touches of orange brightening up the traditional black orchestra garb.
A real surprise on the program was a performance by principal BPO harpist Rachel Miller of French composer A. Caplet’s programmatic piece The Masque of the Red Death. Exploring every color quality the harp can offer, the piece also showcased the devilish rather than celestial quality of the instrument. Appearing in a blood-red, floor-length gown, Miller performed the work with flare and fire. She translated Poe’s horror story right down to the striking of the clock that heralded the doom of the frenetic revelers. Who knew a harp could sound that scary?!?
While the audience was having a frighteningly good time, the musicians were working like devils to perform an incredibly difficult program that employed some unusual instrumentation — a full battery of timpani, English horn, contrabassoon, bass clarinet and four (!) bassoons — and required many unusual effects from the strings.
Dance Macabre, Op. 40 by Saint-Saens featured concertmaster and principal violinist Uli Speth, his fiddle tuned differently to achieve nerve-wracking sounds when he played open strings. In contrast was the warm tone achieved by the string section in one of the few quiet pieces on the program, Sibelius’ Valse Triste.
The concert was the first BPO performance of the season, because the original opener was canceled due to a labor dispute. We’re fortunate that the BPO management and musicians reached an agreement, so that the community can once again enjoy concerts by this superb orchestra. (Here’s a link to a guest viewpoint about the BPO in the Nov. 1 Press & Sun-Bulletin, co-authored by Speth:
The concert also marked a return to using The Forum in downtown Binghamton for all performances (not just pop concerts). Although The Forum isn’t as luxurious or comfortable as Binghamton University’s Anderson Center, if the move can allow the orchestra to afford an extra concert, that’s a net gain for the cultural wealth of our community.
The next BPO concert, “Home for the Holidays,” will be 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 and 3 p.m. Dec. 13 at The Forum and will feature Robin Seletsky, clarinet; Gregory Keeler, narrator, and the vocalists of the Johnson City High School Sophisticats.