Like other connoisseurs of high culture, I am proud to live in an area that hosts the world-class New York City Ballet and the world-class Philadelphia Orchestra in the summer. I confess to not being a ballet fan, but I am an orchestra fan, and it is a treat to have so prestigious an outfit as the Philadelphia practically at my doorstep for a few weeks each year.
So it pains me to see the contortions the orchestra must go through to attract customers — the circus acts, the fireworks, the canons, the celebrity narrations, even movies.
Yes, Thursday night was a showing of “Casablanca,” with the orchestra providing the sound track. Coming up this week, on Friday and Saturday nights, will be acrobats trapezing above the stage. The following week will bring jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis and then an evening of Broadway and Hollywood tunes.
Did someone say classical music? There’s not an awful lot of it.
The season is only three weeks long, with only four shows a week, Wednesday through Saturday nights. That’s 12 shows, and this year I count just four that are straight music without any gimmicks.
Last night was the wonderful Emanuel Ax playing a Mozart piano concerto, followed by Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, but not to take any chances, it was followed by a fireworks display, intended to lure culturati who would have stayed home otherwise.
The last night is traditionally an all-Tchaikovsky program culminating in the 1812 Overture, familiar to old-time radio fans as the Lone Ranger music, which is embellished with live canon fire that always draws admiring gasps and then topped off with more fireworks, guaranteed for more gasps.
I don’t blame SPAC, and I don’t blame the Philadelphia Orchestra. I see what they’re up against. Opening night was the most perfect orchestra night I could imagine — the splendiferous Sarah Chang playing the Bruck violin concerto followed by Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony on a clear, warm night — and do you know how many people were there?
Neither do I, but not many. The amphitheater was less than half full, by my estimation, and the crowd on the lawn was only fair.
If you can’t get a good crowd out for a program like that in weather like that, you’re in trouble. You’ve got to do something. You’ve got to bring in some acrobats and fire a few torpedoes.
I half expect that next year we’ll see a demolition derby or a monster truck show during intermission.
The ballet season has already been reduced from three weeks to two, and now the orchestra season is being diluted with county-fair attractions.
I guess it can’t be helped. Tanglewood in the Berkshires, summer home of the Boston Symphony, consistently draws bigger crowds, sometimes with the same solo stars performing the same pieces of music, but of course it has the advantage of being part of a larger cultural scene, what with Jacob’s Pillow, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Clark Institute and MASS MoCA, whereas Saratoga’s principal charms are a racetrack and a slot-machine pavilion.
Maybe that’s the difference, I don’t know.
I do note that the chamber music portion of SPAC’s season, held in the Little Theater, manages to survive without debasing itself, and so does Opera Saratoga (formerly Lake George Opera).
It’s just the orchestra that needs fireworks — either fireworks or a major celebrity like Yo-Yo Ma, who is known beyond the music world.
Anyway, you hear a lot of self-congratulation at this time of year about what a marvelous cultural center Saratoga is, and I just wanted to temper that with a bit of realism.
Have you ever found yourself driving behind a dump truck with a sign on the back saying “Construction Vehicle Do Not Follow”?
What are you supposed to do, turn around and go back home? I can never figure it out.