Philly Orchestra season brings new faces to SPAC

A female trumpet player, a famed violinist who will also conduct and a harpist who’ll solo in a piec
Alison Balsom
Alison Balsom

A female trumpet player, a famed violinist who will also conduct and a harpist who’ll solo in a piece almost an hour long are only a few of the new faces the Philadelphia Orchestra will present when its three-week season opens Wednesday at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

Audiences might take a second look when English trumpeter Alison Balsom debuts Aug. 14 on the night music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin returns to conduct. Her smashing good looks aside, she has become internationally famous for her sweet singing tone, fabulous technique and sensitive musicianship.

“I never grew up with any prejudice [about girls playing brass instruments]. I’d always dreamt of having this type of career even at a young age,” Balsom said from London. “Besides, as a soloist you’re judged on how you perform. It’s a great leveler. It’s all about substance.”

At a young age she was inspired by jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, but was never a “trumpet geek,” she said. She tried playing in an orchestra but had other dreams.

“I always believed that being a soloist was possible. I constantly tried to improve myself — as a soloist you’re only as good as your last gig,” she said. “I graduated in 2002, but it was only after my 2009 London Proms concert that I knew I’d be all right.”

Balsom views the Haydn Trumpet Concerto that she’ll perform as a chance to “find the essence, the nucleus of the music … and to bring it to life. It’s like a soufflé. Delicate, but I must leave the score intact.”

Internationally celebrated guitarist Milos Karadaglic of Montenegro, who will also debut on the same night in Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez,” worked with Nezet-Seguin to record the piece (Deutsche Grammophone, 2014) and called that session the “best musical experience of my life so far.”

“Yannick is incredible. So you can imagine how excited I am to work with Yannick again — this time with his orchestra and live on stage,” Karadaglic said in an email.

The concerto, which he has often performed, is one of the staples of the guitar literature.

“Its melodies have inspired generations of musicians and broken boundaries of what we perceive as classical and mainstream. After each performance I still keep discovering new things,” he said.

But playing outdoors let alone playing with even a small orchestra is tricky for an acoustic guitarist.

“It requires a lot of careful planning and a little bit of luck. With today’s technology it should be a piece of cake,” he said. “Guitar has … so many colors and sonorities. Fine amplification only reinforces those very qualities.”

Principal harpist Elizabeth Hainen is not a new face but she hasn’t been a soloist at SPAC for almost 10 years. (She will be in recital at Skidmore College’s Saratoga Harp Colony Aug. 8-16.)

On Aug. 15 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, she’ll play Tan Dun’s new work “Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women,” which was written for her. Nezet-Seguin will conduct.

“It’s not a conventional concerto,” Hainen said before traveling to Shanghai where she performed the concerto with Tan Dun conducting. “The harp is a troubadour telling these women’s stories. There’s nothing like it. It’s a remarkable journey.”

Tan Dun spent three years in the Hunan province researching the special language, called Nu Shu, that the women created for each other in doing their daily chores, ceremonies and what they taught their daughters on how to have a good life, Hainen said. Tan Dun created a magical depiction of these Chinese rituals and chose the harp for atmosphere.

The work is technically a challenge and Hainen said she was thrilled to add another great work to her repertoire. She’s been playing harp since she was 10 having been captivated by its sound, which she said was both penetrating yet very comforting.

“I like that I must create the sound with each string I pluck,” she said, adding that harpists in Europe or the Far East perform as soloists more often.

“There’s a vast repertoire, which only in this country is not so often played,” she said. “I hope the Tan piece will change all this.”

When Montreal-based pianist Alain Lefevre, who will debut Aug. 16, is not touring, he has a two-hour radio show on Sundays about classical music. One of his favorite pieces is Gershwin’s Concerto in F.

“It’s very difficult for piano. It’s a tricky concerto,” he said. “I’m doing no cuts, no improvisation. I must respect the Yiddish sense of the music.”

Although Lefevre has had a long career, which includes his days as a piano prodigy, this is his first time making the trek south to SPAC.

“I’m very happy. It’s very exciting,” he said.

Debuting on the final night of the season for the Tchaikovsky Spectacular, is Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin, who will perform Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No.3. Kozhukhin has been non-stop since he won the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition when he was 23.

“I love working with an orchestra. It’s my big passion,” he said from Berlin. “But the Rachmaninoff is the top of the mountain of all concertos in difficulty. It’s physically demanding and it requires a very, very attentive collaboration with the orchestra.”

Since the composer recorded the work with the orchestra in 1939, Kozhukhin said he has few worries about the orchestra’s level of play and sees the concert only as a special moment for him.

Philadelphia Orchestra at SPAC

Aug. 6: The Great American Songbook. Bramwell Tovey, conductor; Brian Stokes Mitchell, vocalist

Aug. 7: Beethoven, Mahler, Strauss. Bramwell Tovey; Jeremy Denk, piano

Aug. 8: Delius, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich. Bramwell Tovey; Yo-Yo Ma, cello

Aug. 9: Cirque de la Symphonie. Cristian Macelaru, conductor

Aug. 13: On Broadway. Steven Reineke, conductor; Stephanie Block, Andrew Rannelis, vocalists

Aug. 14: Haydn, Rodrigo, Tchaikovsky. Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conductor; Alison Balsom, trumpet; Milos Karadagic, guitar

Aug. 15: Tan Dun, Mahler. Yannick Nezet-Seguin; Elizabeth Hainen, harp

Aug. 16: Balakirev, Gershwin, Rachmaninoff. Cristian Macelaru; Alain Lefevre, piano

Aug. 20: Bach, Weber, Brahms. Itzhak Perlman, violin and conductor

Aug. 21: Berlioz, Saint-Saens, Rossini, Respighi. Stephane Deneve, conductor; Alisa Weilerstein, cello

Aug. 22: Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky. Stephane Deneve; NYC Ballet dancers

Aug. 23: Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky. Stephane Deneve; Denis Kozhukhin, piano

HOW MUCH: $85-$32; $24 (lawn); children 12 and under, free

MORE INFO: 584-9330,

Categories: Entertainment

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