The Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin once again astounded a huge crowd Thursday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with their extraordinary playing and joie de vivre. Added to that was the orchestra and SPAC debut of violinist Randall Goosby, who was equally fabulous.
The program began with a briskly paced and perky Rossini Overture to “The Thieving Magpie.” Nezet-Seguin, who likes to let his players play out especially at full volume, set a wide range of dynamics. Tempos were traditional but even so the fast technical passages especially in the violins had great clarity. And piccolo player Erica Peel knocked off her snappy solos with tight precision. A speedy finish brought a huge applause, whistles and cheers.
Goosby was next in the wonderfully romantic Bruch Violin Concerto. Goosby, 26, has studied the last ten or more years with the great Itzhak Perlman and showed all the style and strong musicality one would expect. He projected a cool and confident demeanour and from the opening highly nuanced bars, he played with deep bowing, a lot of passion and lift to his phrases and a clean technique.
While Nezet-Seguin was a close partner and tended the balances well and would linger over a phrase to follow, once the orchestra had its own say, he’d let them soar with fire and pushed the tempo to create waves of sound. Their partnership was interesting to watch as both smiled a lot especially after a huge technical display from Goosby. It was obvious the pleasure both were getting from the performance.
The crowd jumped to its feet with wild cheers, whistling, huge applause.
After more curtain calls, Goosby whipped out an encore: “Louisiana Blues Strut.” Written by Ashley Home of the Harlem Chamber Players, it’s a toe tapping, smaltzy, down-home crowd pleaser that Goosby knocked off with great pizzazz. Nezet-Seguin, who had seated himself on the podium to listen, was clearly entranced. Another standing ovation.
After intermission, Nezet-Seguin told the crowd that the orchestra had commissioned various composers in 2020 to write a companion piece to go with a Beethoven symphony. Because of the pandemic, these were never premiered to a full house but only digitally. As on Wednesday, audiences got to hear Iman Habibi’s offering that went with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. On Thursday, it was Jessica Hunt’s “Climb” to go with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”). Hunt, who suffers from dysautonomia, which makes even climbing stairs a huge accomplishment, connected to Beethoven’s own despair over his looming deafness. All this proved that “we are all heroes of our own lives by facing the challenges in our own lives,” Nezet-Seguin said. “This symphony was groundbreaking for its length and content. . .the fugue, the variations and having a funeral march in the second movement.”
Hunt’s piece began with sharp dissonance, high energy, slapping strings and spurts of sound in strong rhythmic pulses to peak into a lyrical swath of romantic sound as if a respite on reaching a goal. A few notes from a lone clarinet presaged the opening bars of the symphony.
The first movement was quick with smooth lyrical singing lines, gentle attacks and a lush sounding orchestra. It was like a joyous re-affirmation. The luminous second movement was well paced with slow build-ups in volume that Nezet-Seguin would drop off dramatically. The third movement, a Scherzo, was lively, playful, tightly controlled and focused with everyone playing as one. Smiles from the conductor were frequent. The finale had laughter and light, delightful melodies and a coda that was sweet and quiet until Nezet-Sequin picked up the tempo propulsively to end dramatically.
A roar of approval, a standing ovation, whistles, cheers, huge applause brought the conductor to thank the crowd and to add that the orchestra was a “treasure” and the players were “playing their hearts out.”
On Saturday night, the final of the season, is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and a companion piece from Gabriela Lena Frank with the Albany Pro Musica and four vocal soloists.