Five new faces will greet patrons at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center when the Philadelphia Orchestra opens its season on Wednesday. Four are conductors, one is a pianist.
The conductors are Constantine Kitsopoulos, Stephane Deneve, Giancarlo Guerrero and Bramwell Tovey (Aug. 13).
“This is my first time with the orchestra and a big step for me,” Kitsopoulos said. “The orchestra is legendary. I’ve listened always to their recordings.”
Kitsopoulos, who’s in his fifth year as music director of the Queens Symphony Orchestra, has made a name for himself as a theater conductor with credits as varied as the Hong Kong Municipal Opera and Broadway musicals. His SPAC night will be a live screening of the 1942 classic “Casablanca,” which is not only a first for the venue but also for Kitsopoulos.
“I’ve done many film nights with other orchestras but never with ‘Casablanca,’ ” he said. “When you see the film, the music is in the background. Now, with the orchestra, you can hear the details and the surging romantic score by Max Steiner. He weaves ‘As Time Goes By’ in and out of the score in different rhythms.”
Because the music’s high points must match with the drama, he practiced with a DVD of the film and an analog clock to be sure he hits the marks. This is Kitsopoulos’ SPAC debut, but he knows the venue well.
“I was born in Troy and my dad taught at RPI. I’ll be taking an extra day to see old stomping grounds,” he said laughing.
Stephane Deneve, the new music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, will work with cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Aug. 3), violinist James Ehnes (Aug. 4) and do the first night of Cirque de la Symphonie (Aug. 5). It’s his SPAC debut, but Deneve often conducts the orchestra, including its residency at Vail just before SPAC.
“I’m extremely excited to enjoy the orchestra in an open-air environment. I’m sure they will shine even more than the stars,” Deneve said in an email. “James is an old friend. We perform regularly together . . . but we’ve never performed Beethoven before. About Yo-Yo Ma: this is a dream come true. I’m very touched that SPAC will offer me my very first experience of sharing music with him on stage. And what music — Shostakovich Concerto No. 1, which I heard him play in Seattle last year and I was moved to tears. This time, though, I need to behave: I still have to conduct the orchestra.”
As for working with trapeze artists, Deneve said it will be a new experience.
“I have a huge vertigo and I hope I won’t be too stressed looking at the trapeze artists and accelerate the music tempo in a too scary way . . . for them or the orchestra,” he said.
Deneve’s debut carries personal resonance: his 3-year-old daughter Alma will see her father conduct for the first time.
Giancarlo Guerrero, who is in his second year as music director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra which recently won a Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance, has often worked with the Philadelphia, especially at Vail, but never with three-time Grammy–Award winner saxophonist Branford Marsalis (Aug. 10) or Grammy-nominated Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero (Aug. 11).
“I knew Branford’s reputation and what he wanted to play [Williams’ ‘Escapades’ and Milhaud’s ‘Scaramouche’], then I chose the rest of the program. It will be a blockbuster,” Guerrero said. “I’ve never worked with Gabriela. I’ve worked in Venezuela but never in the same city as she was playing in.”
Guerrero is unusual as conductors go — few can call Costa Rica home. He came through the country’s youth symphony program before he went on to study at Baylor and then Northwestern universities.
“Actually, I was born in Nicaragua, the mecca of classical music,” Guerrero said laughing. “I do have an affinity for Spanish music but I don’t like to do it as a gimmick. It must feel right.”
What he really is crazy about besides jazz is rock and roll music.
“I love the old heavy rock of Otis Rush or Iron Maiden,” Guerrero said. “That’s what I listen to the most.”
It is also why he knows Marsalis’ playing so well, he said, because Marsalis used to play with Sting — another of his favorites.
Bramwell Tovey, the music director of the Vancouver Symphony since 2000 and an international favorite, is making two East Coast summer debuts: the Philadelphia at SPAC and Boston at Tanglewood (Aug. 26). Usually, his summers are spent either working with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl or the New York Philharmonic in its Summertime Classics series. His SPAC visit includes working with old friend, violinist Gil Shaham, in the Tchaikovsky spectacular.
“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve done these Tchaikovsky pieces,” he said. “They’re fresh very time. They’re good season closers. Tchaikovsky and summer go together.”
In the last three years, Tovey and the Vancouver have made headlines. They were the first Canadian orchestra to perform in China in 30 years, he himself debuted with several Chinese orchestras as guest conductor and in 2008, with Ehnes, received a Grammy Award for their recording of the violin concertos of Barber, Korngold and Walton. Tovey credits the city of Vancouver with inspiration.
“It’s a music-mad city and a boom town,” he said.
Violinist James Ehnes’ playing is known in more than 30 countries on five continents, but it’s been 11 years since he performed at SPAC. For that concert he worked with Charles Dutoit, an old friend since 1989 when he was 13 and debuted with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
“I’ve known him a long time and worked much with him,” Ehnes said. “I made my first concerto recording with him.”
Ehnes regularly plays between 90 and 100 concerts a year, and has created a substantial discography. His recent Mendelssohn recording (Onyx, 2010) received a Juno Award nomination. For his SPAC appearance, he’ll work with long-time friend Stephane Deneve (Aug. 4) to perform Beethoven’s concerto.
“It’s a piece I dearly love and will be one I’m playing around with other orchestras — Seattle, Colorado, Oregon, Amsterdam,” Ehnes said. “I’ve never done it with Stephane. It will be good fun.”
Of some concern, however, is that he’ll be playing his 1715 “Ex Marsick” Stradivarius outside.
“It’s a very healthy instrument despite its age and I care for it scrupulously, but I’m more concerned about it getting wet,” he said adding that humidity can make his fingers slip on the strings. “The ebony fingerboard can also sweat. It gets icky.”
Ehnes said even with these risks, he still wouldn’t play on a “second” instrument.
Audiences worldwide have discovered pianist Gabriela Montero’s superb improvisational abilities even as her career was launched at President Barack Obama’s inauguration when she performed with Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. Montero, who was unavailable for comment, will make her SPAC and orchestral debuts Aug. 11 with Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2.