The Philadelphia Orchestra returns to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Wednesday for a four-day residency under music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin. But with the pandemic, even this venerable organization has re-evaluated its mission to better reflect current expectations.
“We’re looking beyond our narrow border to expand our repertoire and vision and sense of social responsibility as a civic arts organization,” said concertmaster David Kim. “It’s important to embrace that and be a voice of art and culture to include many new works and recordings by women, people of color, overlooked composers. Audiences have enjoyed and been astonished at how beautiful these works are and are embracing them. It’s a success story for us and we’re proud to be the leader.”
That’s why SPAC audiences will get several premieres from such composers as Florence Price (1887-1953), who became the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra; Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) whose work received high praise from Robert Schumann; and living composers Valerie Coleman and the orchestra’s composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena-Frank.
Although the music will be new to local ears, the orchestra has been busy over the last year learning the new pieces and developing new social distancing strategies.
“We created a virtual concert stage,” Kim said. “We all got tested, wore masks, recorded outdoors and then indoors to the same conductor. We did the great warhorses and the new stuff. Constituents were incredibly generous. But it was a sad day last year when we heard SPAC was out. It’s our second home in the summer. But time flies.”
Kim estimates only about sixty percent of the musicians will come to SPAC this summer. The orchestra has already been to Vail, CO for ten days, which he said was a “great success. It was a giddy feeling.” And they did a week at the Mann Center in Philadelphia, which was also “really successful.”
The local season will be short, but the regular morning rehearsals will go on as usual.
“We know the music, so we’re not feeling we’ve got to rush to learn anything new,” he said.
The orchestra takes all this in stride, but for Coleman and Lena-Frank, it’s still a thrill to have their work performed by these musicians.
“The Philadelphia Orchestra is such a gift,” Coleman said. “They have almost an ESP about their playing. . .playing like a chamber music group. They breathe together.”
Her piece, “Seven O’Clock Shout,” will be performed on Aug. 12, Thursday. It is her second work the orchestra has played.
Coleman’s association with the orchestra began a few years ago. At the time Coleman was the flutist with the Imani Winds, a Grammy nominated woodwind quintet she founded in 1997. As a woman of color and a double degree graduate in flute performance and composition from Boston University, she said she automatically began writing for the group to represent the African diaspora. While she continued to do both for years, this posed concerns, she said, because being a performer and a woman of color who was also a composer left people confused.
“I’m a great believer in hybridity,” Coleman said. “Society always wants to put you in one box or another.”
However, one of her pieces that Imani used as an encore became very popular and it was that which got the Philadelphia Orchestra’s attention.
“They reached out to me to have me rearrange the piece for orchestra,” she said. “I also wanted to build a relationship with them. To give a composer a chance to know these players and to evolve with their writing…it allowed me to push the envelope.”
After twenty years with Imani, Coleman decided to retire from the group.
“I still play flute, but I wanted to see how far I could take being a composer,” she said.
Last May, the orchestra asked her to do a five minute piece for their gala that would be a salute to the pandemic’s essential workers, a comment on everyone’s isolation, racial unrest and a declaration of human survival. The work has since been played several times, including at the Vail residency.
Lena-Frank, too, had a previous connection to the orchestra before assuming her current position.
“Back in 2012, Philly premiered my ‘Concertino Cusquelo’ as a tribute to Yannick assuming the helm at Philly,” she said. “It was a memorable experience.”
Lena-Frank’s background includes a Latin Grammy and Grammy nominations, several residencies at colleges throughout the country, and composer-in-residence with the Houston and Detroit symphonies. Despite the accolades, she said she felt some pressure when she became the Philadelphia’s composer.
“Working with a world class organization is thrilling, and no, I don’t feel the pressure anymore,” she said. “With the pandemic putting our projects on hold, I’m really chomping at the bit to get started.”
Her selections from “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout” for string orchestra will be performed Aug. 13 Friday. Like all her work, inspirations are from her Latin American heritage. This piece, which premiered in October 2020, blends elements from the Western classical with Andean folk music traditions, especially those of Peru.
Besides the new works, there will be familiar soloists: principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales will perform Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto Aug. 13; Kim will join with Juliette Kang, the first associate concertmaster, Aug. 12 for Bach’s Double Concerto; and violinist Joshua Bell will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on Saturday, complete with fireworks.
“I’ve done the Bach several times with Juliette but it’s a thrill beyond words to play a solo with the Philadelphia. It’s a privilege,” Kim said.
All concerts will be about 90 minutes with no intermission. Social distancing will be maintained in the amphitheater.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Aug. 11-14
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center
HOW MUCH: $40 – $105; $30, lawn
MORE INFO: www.spac.org; 518 – 584 – 9330