Even the gods would have been impressed with how well the Philadelphia Orchestra sounded Saturday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. But then, maybe they were the ones who inspired everyone, including concertmaster David Kim and pianist Emanuel Ax.
Even the program, by conductor Charles Dutoit, was an inspired choice. It opened with Bartok’s “Two Portraits” with Kim as the soloist. Written as a love letter to a young violinist that Bartok was enamoured of in 1907, the slow first movement begins with the violinist playing several bars alone before the orchestra enters. Kim spun out the haunting abstract melody, which was very beautiful, with rich tones. He never sentimentalized the song but stuck to strict rhythms and propelled the lines forward with feeling.
By the time Bartok had completed the work, the affair was over. So he orchestrated the last of one of his bagatelles for piano as the quick-stepping second movement. Kim’s part followed the first violin part without a solo. The mood was very carnival like.
Ax couldn’t wait to play his part in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. As usual, he watched the musicians intently during the long orchestral introduction, and then when it was time, he pounced on the keys with vigor and force. That energy contradicted the relaxed tone that Dutoit and the orchestra had taken. Ax continued with that energy, strong accents and deliberate and precise articulations. But he phrased with a poetic gentleness.
His first movement’s cadenza was fiery and tightly paced. He took a reverential tone in the slower second movement with its long lines and much softer playing. His final movement was jaunty with tight rhythms and streams of notes. Dutoit kept the tempos controlled and provided strong dynamic contrasts. The coda was speedy and daring.
The exuberance of the performance was so fresh and joyous that the large crowd gave everyone a standing ovation and several curtain calls.
The second half was all Brahms. His third symphony is one of the great masterworks of the genre and Dutoit and the orchestra were superb. The ensemble work was more like chamber music at its highest level. Connections were seamless. Phrases were exquisitely rendered with passion and finesse. The orchestra gave the piece a warm, burnished copper sound. As a kind of encore, the orchestra stylishly played two of his Hungarian Dances: the light No. 3 and the more famous and dramatic No. 1.
The next concert is Wednesday with conductor Marin Alsop and violinist Gil Shaham.