SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY - It's racing season up here in Saratoga, and with it comes the return of the Philadelphia Orchestra to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where they have performed each summer since 1966. All this week, they've been joined by their new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who came here straight from his performances at Mostly Mozart last weekend. Wednesday night, they were joined by Lang Lang playing Liszt's First Concerto; Thursday night featured Italian arias with Angela Meade and Bryan Hymel. Both concerts were reportedly well attended, as you would expect.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I got to SPAC last night to find more than three-quarters of the ampitheater empty. Hard to say what the issue was: it had rained earlier in the day, but was clear by concert time. Maybe the program, which began with Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra and ended with Prokofiev and Tchiakovsky, was a bit too foreign for the folks up here. Maybe they hadn't gotten the memo that Nézet-Séguin is just about the hottest conductor in the country right now.
Whatever it was, Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra clearly didn't let the sound of crickets—literally and figuratively—phase them. Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2001 and owes a great deal to Bartok's well-known Concerto for Orchestra: both are five movements, and share much of the same post-romantic soundscape. But, Higdon's concerto also looks back to the Baroque concerto grosso, highlighting individual members of the orchestra. (In pre-concert remarks, Higdon said that she incorporated specific requests for solos from the Philadelphia players, whom she said she would bump into whenever she left her house, four blocks from Verizon Hall.) For all those who might have been put off by the appearance of a living composer on the program, Higdon's music was immediately accessible and engaging—particularly the tender strings of the second movement and the percussion-based fourth movement, which revved up right into the fifth-movement finale. And, from the standing ovation she received, most others seemed to agree.
After the Higdon, Arabella Steinbacher gave a tender, reaching performance of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, which relies more on dreamlike textures and orchestral color than virtuosic fireworks. (As an encore, Steinbacher played Fritz Kreisler’s Recitative and Scherzo, filled with lots of little jewels.)
Those fireworks came instead after intermission in Tchiakovsky's "Little Russian" Symphony. Nézet-Séguin, who conducted from memory, got a big, crisp sound from the orchestra, with the strings in particular sounding tight and driving. When it was over, everyone rose to their feet in spontaneous applause: for those facing the stage, at least, it felt like a full house. But for anyone on stage facing out, it must have served as a stark reminder that all is not well with the state of classical music in America.
Fortunately, there's a diminutive Canadian named Yannick on the case. Stay tuned.
More pics on the photo page.