The Philadelphia Orchestra Surpasses Itself
SARATOGA SPRINGS – The cocktail chatter had faded by the time the oboe’s solitary, readying note glided across the beautiful summer evening of Wednesday August 5 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC). The audience held its collective breath as Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève gave a silent signal to one of the world’s most renowned gathering of musicians. It was opening night in the summer home of The Philadelphia Orchestra, and the audience was about to experience an Olympian musical performance rivaling that of even the great American Pharoah.
In an interview the evening before, Denève described feeling a great good fortune in his role with the Orchestra. “They have this incredible sustained sound,” he said, “very powerful, with star players. I’m a little like a child in a toy shop in choosing an accurate piece to showcase such talent.”
And powerful it certainly was, as well as warm, relaxed and inviting. Denève led that talent in a repertoire highlighting the season to come, with challenging works requiring the deftest fingers, the longest breaths, the most precise muscle movements – all delivered with the poignant grace of those who not only love music, but become music once they lift their instruments, bringing the audience right along with them on a breathtaking journey of sound best heard in the acoustical magnificence of the Best Outdoor Music Venue in the nation (USA Today 2015).
The French-born Denève, who is conducting the first week of the Orchestra’s season, is also the Chief Conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and, beginning in September 2015, Chief Conductor of the Brussels Philharmonic as well as Director of its Centre for Future Orchestra Repertoire.
He is a member of a spectacular roster of conductors leading The Philadelphia Orchestra in its three-week residency, including Music DirectorYannick Nézet-Séguin; conductor-in-residence Cristian Măcelaru; and assistant conductor Lio Kuokman. Audiences can look forward to a captivating mix of the best in classical and modern music, a program they carefully designed collectively.
“It is a very unique and unusual setup for decision-making in an orchestra,” said Denève. “This collaboration came from the musicians and I’m honored they chose me to be included. It builds a wonderful team feeling and deepens the relationship of conductor and musicians. One of the great things is that we’re all very young for conductors, and the Orchestra is so open-minded. There is no fight for tradition; they listen to my vision for the pieces and I know they will always try to fulfill my dreams. It is very rare and I love them. I know there is a very loyal following here, but for everyone I can only say I hope the people realize how very privileged they are to have such an Orchestra as this in residence here each year.”
The first half of the evening’s program contained excerpts of works that will be performed throughout the residency, including:Beethoven’s “Coriolan”, and selections from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite”; Rachmaninoff/Stokowski’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor”;Brahms’ “Third Movement from Symphony No. 3”, and Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets.”
“It is a little ‘amuse bouche’, appetizer, of the weeks to come,” said Denève. “It is very exciting and I hope the audience will discover pieces they didn’t know and will come to love. For me, the most touching piece is in my second night, from Romeo and Juliet. The end, with the death of Juliet, is so heartbreaking that I must refrain myself from, well, crying, in the middle of the job I must do for the musicians counting on me. It is a very deeply, moving piece to hear and to conduct.”
For the second half of the opening night program, the audience enjoyed the incomparable Bernadette Peters, who has earned two Tony Awards and three Drama Desk Awards, as well as a Golden Globe Award. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987 recognizing her impressive career, which has included starring roles in original productions of “Into the Woods”, “Song and Dance”, and “George M!”, as well as highly praised revivals of “On the Town” and “Annie Get Your Gun”.
Marvin Laird led the Orchestra as Guest Conductor to Peters’ vocals, which included “Let Me Entertain You”; “No One is Alone”; “There is Nothing Like a Dame”; “Fever” (performed while draped atop the piano); “It Might as Well be Spring”; “Losing My Mind”; “Send in the Clowns”; “Being Alive”; and “Kramer’s Song”.
Bernadette Peters, for all her diminutive stature, fills the stage simply by stepping onto it. This legend of stage and screen has delighted audiences for decades, yet to experience her live is like drinking from the fountain of youth. The audience was completely hers opening night. She tickled their fancy, held them spellbound, lifted them to exuberance, and gently brought more than one pair of eyes to silent tears.
Highlights of the remaining season which runs through August 22 can be found at the venue’s website, http://www.spac.org/events/orchestra.