Saratoga Springs

Music review: Energetic, focused Yashima leads joyous Philadelphia Orchestra opener

Dancers with BalletX perform a dance choreographed by Tiler Peck to “Umoja, Anthem of Unity,” alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra on its opening night at SPAC in Saratoga Springs on Wednesday.
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Dancers with BalletX perform a dance choreographed by Tiler Peck to “Umoja, Anthem of Unity,” alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra on its opening night at SPAC in Saratoga Springs on Wednesday.

The Philadelphia Orchestra returned for its traditional three-week stay at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night. While the audience size was a bit above moderate, especially on the lawn, the response to every piece was hugely enthusiastic.

What was especially exciting about the evening beyond it including the debut of Ballet X of Philadelphia in a premiere and two masterworks, it was the debut of Erina Yashima, the orchestra’s own assistant conductor, who will soon depart to take up a position with a Berlin, Germany, orchestra.

Yashima is a firebrand on the podium. Her conducting style is precise with a taut clear beat and a forceful energy that electrifies not only the musicians but the audience. She’s totally focused and utterly joyous in what’s she’s doing and getting superb results. Even in the traditional opening of the “Star Spangeled Banner” in which many in the audience sang, the music sounded almost as if we’d never heard it before.

The program opened with Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture” (1954) with its big brassy introduction that leads to colorful and fast melodies before returning to its thrilling conclusion. The orchestra sounded fabulous and with Yashima’s propulsive tempos, the music jumped off the page. A friend said after the cheers, standing ovation and loud clapping that he’d follow Yashima anywhere.

Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja, Anthem for Unity” was originally written for a women’s choir then re-arranged for woodwind quintet and finally for full orchestra in 2019 when the Philadelphia gave it a world premiere. But putting it with a dance company made it another debut. Tiler Peck, a dancer with the New York City Ballet, choreographed the work, which is her first. Five women and five men from Ballet X performed. Martha Chamberlain designed filmy dresses in shades ranging from turquoise to slate blue for the women and mostly T-shirt type garb for the men.

The music was gentle, very pastoral and flowing and seemed like a day in the country. Dancers spun in duos and trios in a playful mood with sweeping gestures, pretty lifts, quick little steps, and an unusual sliding foot step, and groupings that moved in and out in long lines. A few sections had the five men or five women spaced well apart working in unison. Peck seemed to focus on giving everything a sense of continuity as if to connect to Coleman’s musical intentions.

The audience loved it and gave a huge applause, cheers and another standing ovation.

The finale was Tchaikovsky’s monumental Symphony No. 4 (1878). No one does it better than this orchestra but even though they’ve performed it numerous times with many conductors, Yashima put her own stamp on it. The strings as always were lustrous, the brass heroic and the woodwinds soaring. But Yashima’s dynamic levels had more subtlety than usually heard.

In the first movement, she asked for quieter sections, which allowed the woodwind punctuations to provide a magical commentary. The French horn section was allowed into clarion mode. Overall, the depth and range of dynamics that she asked and got was amazing and quite wonderful. The music then had a greater richness and the audience heard it and clapped vigorously.

The second movement was charming, light with nuanced woodwind solos. The famous third movement with the strings plucking the melody sparkled and the finale exploded with bold brass and brisk tempos that Yashima pushed even faster to end almost volcanically.

The audience jumped to its feet cheering. Yashima gave every section a bow. The show ended with a huge fireworks display.

On Friday night, conductor Michael Stern will lead violinist Joshua Bell and soprano Larisa Martinez in a romantic evening of “Voice and the Violin.”

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts, Saratoga Springs

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