Conductor Stephane Deneve presented a different kind of program Wednesday night in his Saratoga Performing Arts Center debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma provided the star power.
The repertoire, which Deneve chose, was especially lyrical, or maybe it was the combination of what he put together. After charming the huge crowd with remarks about the music and how much he was looking forward to playing with Ma — his first time — they began with Prokofiev’s Suite from “The Love for Three Oranges” (1919-1925). The six sections were wonderfully colorful, with quirky changes of tempos, a lot of splash and sweeps of sound that all ended suddenly.
The famous March — familiar to many as introductory music for some radio or television program of yore — was brisk and snappy. The orchestration, which was excellent, seemed always to be re-inventing itself with new ideas. Deneve conducted with exuberance and precision.
Then, with a huge roar, the crowd welcomed Ma, who sat down and immediately began to play Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. Deneve had previously told the crowd that the Philadelphia had given the world premiere in 1959 with Rostropovich on cello and Shostakovich himself in attendance.
The work has enormous vitality. The first movement is highly percussive and jaunty, with the cello using a hard-edged, rough sound. The slower second movement was haunting. Ma was mesmerizing and seemed as transfixed by the beauty of the music as the audience, which was rapt. Deneve kept a low profile; the orchestra was completely supportive.
Ma often played at the top of his tone without vibrato, which made the long lines even more haunting. After exchanging a few lonely moments with principal French horn Jennifer Montone, Ma played the work’s famous cadenza.
Ma paced himself, careful to spell out the ideas with clarity and direction. This led into the puckish, strutting finale, with Ma bowing madly away and working up a sweat.
The audience jumped to its feet and went crazy with applause, cheering and hooting. After several curtain calls, Ma returned to play alone the Sarabande from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 6, which was sweet and beautifully sung over the many double stops.
Two of Ravel’s works followed: “Mother Goose Suite” and Suite No. 2 from “Daphnis and Chloe.” Both are staples of the orchestra’s repertoire, and they played with all the expected finesse. “Mother” had plenty of mellow, long and smoothly arched lines with a narrow dynamic range that allowed for subtlety. It was like giving Deneve a box of pastels. He painted up a storm. At the end, it was like a flower opening up to the sun in slow motion.
In “Daphnis,” Deneve set traditional tempos filled with silken phrases, great ebb and flow and dramatic moments. He also allowed flutist David Cramer plenty of space in the famous solo, which Cramer played wonderfully.
Tonight, Deneve returns with violinist James Ehnes in an all-Beethoven program.