SPAC preview: NYC Ballet, Philadelphia Orchestra to bring mix of new, traditional

The cast of New York City Ballet's Play TIme, choreography by Gianna Reisen (Erin Baiano photo)

The cast of New York City Ballet's Play TIme, choreography by Gianna Reisen (Erin Baiano photo)

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SARATOGA SPRINGS – When the Saratoga Performing Arts Center opens its classical season with the New York City Ballet on July 18 and the Philadelphia Orchestra Aug. 2, audiences will revel in the innovative mix of works to premiere at the venue with those much loved.

“It’s been a collaborative effort,” said Christopher Shiley, SPAC’s vice president of programming. “We wanted the core staples the community has come to love with those not seen before. We also wanted to bring some artists and conductors in their first time here.”

For the New York City Ballet, that means four of the eight ballets they’ll perform will be SPAC premieres.

“We always try to present new work critical to our mission. It’s the lifeblood of the company,” said Jonathan Stafford, the company’s artistic director. “Generally, we do four to six each year. This season there are six new works. They give the dancers a way to push the limits … how a different choreographer will find a new way to pull steps together or how a step might look different on a dancer. It’s always a moment of discovery.”

On July 18, the evening, “NYCB On and Off Stage,” will be spent on giving the audience a chance to see excerpts from the various dances and a chat with dancers on what they’re performing.

“We did three or four nights of this starting in 2021 as a response to the pandemic,” he said. “But we discovered that audiences related to them and learned about the dances, their context, and why steps were choreographed in a certain way. It gets audiences excited about the dances and develops new audiences in an accessible way.”

Three of the new dances were performed last year. They include “Play Time” with choreography by Gianna Reisen and music by Solange Knowles, which is “fun, sparkling with exciting music and choreography”; “Liturgy” to choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and Arvo Part’s music, which is a duo and “haunting”; and “Love Letter (on shuffle)” with music by James Blake and choreography by Kyle Abraham. Giles Deacon’s costumes are said to be “eye-catching.” Stafford said the ballet is “beautiful, dynamic and the dancers look fantastic.”

Choreographer Justin Peck also created “Copland Dance Episodes” to excerpts of Aaron Copland’s music that is “fresh and exciting,” Stafford said.

The more familiar works include the Stravinsky/Peck “Scherzo Fantastique,” Balanchine’s one act “Swan Lake” with Tchaikovsky’s music; Bernstein/Jerome Robbins “Fancy Free” and Stravinsky/Balanchine & Robbins “Firebird.”

The full company and orchestra under music director Andrew Litton will be up.

“It’s important to present the full ballets. We have an incredible audience who love us and want to see us,” Stafford said. “It’s a lot of work but the audience deserves to have the real and full version of New York City Ballet. It’s exciting to being here for a week for the dancers and for them to do something different every night. It’s well worth the effort.”

More ‘poppy’ nights

The Philadelphia Orchestra will offer a wide-range of choices that will include a few more “poppy” kind of nights, new artists, new conductors, and some smash traditional hits.

Opening night is all tradition with music by Tchaikovsky: his Symphony No. 5, his Violin Concerto with concertmaster David Kim, and his crowd-pleasing “1812 Overture.” Fabio Luisi, the music director of the Dallas Symphony conducts.

He also leads the next night with Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“Great”) and the debut of 26-year old British pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason in Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto. This remarkable pianist is the oldest of seven musical siblings and already much awarded.

The weekend includes Enrico Lopez-Yanez, Nashville Symphony’s pops conductor, working with Pink Martini, a 30-year old globe-trotting, genre-bending little orchestra that has sold more than three million recordings; and the 2005 film “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

The next week starts with conductor Roderick Cox debuting with a Beethoven symphony and Grammy and Tony Award winner vocalist Audra McDonald who brings her conductor Andy Einhorn for an evening of Broadway favorites. Then Philly music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin comes for two nights:
Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 and Canadian pianist Bruce Liu, who won the 2021 International Chopin Competition in Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2; and the next night with The Crossing, a Philadelphia-based chorale, for John Luther Adams’ “Vespers of the Blessed Earth” and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

Shaham’s return

On the final week will be something rarely done at SPAC: a small chamber-size string orchestra to play Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” with violin superstar Gil Shaham, who will also perform Chevalier de Saint Georges’ Violin Concerto #9 in G Major. Not only has the Vivaldi never been done in the main venue before, but Shaham has not led a group let alone performed here in almost 10 years.

“Has it been that long?” he asked. “Well, we played this concert in Philadelphia. I suggested the program. I’ve played Vivaldi often. But the Saint Georges never. Discovered him maybe five years ago. I’d done his quartets and sonatas and did look at the others [concertos] but this one struck me. The second movement is so touching, so beautiful, I so wanted to learn that.”

Shaham found that with both composers having been violinists they knew how to write for the instrument.

“They make it sing. The virtuosic passages work, they feel nice in the fingers. The music is transcendent,” he said. “I’ll probably do it from memory.”
And although he’s played Vivaldi for almost 30 years, he’s now discovering that people are willing to experiment whether it’s to use or not use vibrato, to use other instruments on the parts, even to tempos. He’s also hoping that the sonnets that come with each season will be provided because they help his interpretations, he said, adding that the music so captures the words.

Does he have a favorite season?

“There’s a moment in winter … the fire crackling, the iron doors creaking, the foot stomping … but the summer storm is so different from the spring showers,” he said laughing.

The following night is Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 and legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma in Dvorak’s Cello Concerto under conductor Xian Zhang, the music director of the New Jersey Symphony.

The weekend is a blockbuster: Mason Bates’ “Philharmonia Fantastique” is an animated guide to the orchestra with film; and “Earth: an HD Odyssey” with NASA images and music from John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra.” The last night is the 1993 film “Jurassic Park” with Constantine Kitsopoulos conducting.

New York City Ballet

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. July 18-21; 2 p.m. July 20, 22
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center
HOW MUCH: Tickets start at $18 (lawn); $33 (amphitheater)
MORE INFO:; 518 584-9330

Philadelphia Orchestra

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 2-5; Aug. 9-12; Aug. 16-19
HOW MUCH: Tickets start at $18 (lawn); $33

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