Niagara Gazette

July 29, 2013

Artpark successfully recaptures opening night magic

By Thom Jennings
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — On Thursday, Artpark celebrated its 40th season in style, recapturing the majesty of their grand opening in 1974 with a marvelous performance that defies description. In other words, you had to be there.

Anyone that has spent an evening with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra realizes what an amazing group of musicians they are. Under the direction of an energetic conductor, JoAnn Falletta, the orchestra delivered a flawless and majestic evening of music in support of performers, and on their own.

The evening’s hosts were former WGRZ news anchor Laurie Frey and Toronto Raptor’s sportscaster Jack Armstrong, both have strong ties to Lewiston. The chemistry between the two was fantastic as they introduced performers, spoke of the importance of the evening or even told a joke.

The evening’s music began with performances of the Canadian and American national anthems. The amount of people in attendance that were singing the Canadian anthem was a testament to the appeal of Artpark to our neighbors to the north.

The BPO began the formal part of the program with “Fanfare for the Common Man,” an appropriate beginning for an institution designed to appeal to everyone.

The first guest performer was Norman Krieger, a highly acclaimed pianist from Los Angeles. Krieger played two songs by Chopin and his playing was truly sublime and drew a tremendous response from the audience.

After intermission, the program went to new heights with a ballet performance from Silvana Vaccarelli and Sergio Neglia from Romeo and Juliet. It was the first time I have ever experienced a live ballet performance and it left me wanting more, and later in the evening Villa Putrius and Mindaugas Bauzys put on a ballet performance that was just as grand.

The brightest star of the evening was Western New York native and Broadway performer Michele Ragusa.

On Artpark’s opening night in 1974, the evening’s star performer was Ethel Merman, who by all accounts put on a tremendous performance that evening. To think that on the occasion of Artpark’s 40th season they could secure a performer with local ties that rivals Merman’s singing ability is simply amazing.

After spending the last few weeks attending rock concerts at Artpark, sitting back and listening to Ragusa sing was a remarkable experience. All three of Ragusa’s performances drew huge applause, and my favorite of the three Broadway songs she sang was her version of “Til There Was You” from West Side Story.

When she hit the high notes, the entire amphitheater felt like it was reverberating with joy.

The end of the evening, as it did in 1974, concluded with the “1812 Overture” and some really loud fireworks.

The family of Senator Earl W. Brydges was in attendance Thursday, and they must have looked on with pride as people celebrated and reflected on the park’s 40th anniversary. I wasn’t there in 1974, but I was glad I was able to be part of Artpark’s history on Thursday night.

Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for the Gazette.