The Philadelphia Orchestra opened its summer season Wednesday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in what turned out to be more than just a night of fabulous music making.
Not only did piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson join the orchestra to play the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but midway through the second movement of the hour-long Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 in E minor, the power went out and the hall was thrown into darkness.
As the last few notes of the orchestra ceased and groans from the large crowd began, the lights slowly began to come on. Conductor Stéphane Denève turned to the crowd and said, “The musicians play with all their hearts but not by heart.”
This brought a huge laugh and much applause, especially as the power seemed to fail again before everything came fully on.
It was all part of what made the evening memorable. Ohlsson, who performed Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor with effortless virtuosity, was like a rock. His chords in the opening movement’s majestically expansive theme were fully weighted with snappy releases. His touch in the lyrical inner sections was tender and sustained and he sang the long cadenza’s lines with passion. The orchestra dazzled.
In the second movement, which is such a contrast to the outer two movements, all was delicacy and light. The various solos in the flute, cello and oboe, which were all performed splendidly, echoed a deliciously tranquil theme before a quickening tempo began with frolicking figures.
The finale was bright and hard-edged, with a big sound and strong accents. Ohlsson and Denève were eyeball to eyeball to keep Ohlsson’s huge octave runs in time. The audience jumped to its feet with roars of approval, cheers and whistles. After several curtain calls, Ohlsson gave an encore: Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C-sharp minor. After slow sonorous chords comes the darkly melancholic theme over undulating patterns. It was like a great cathedral of sound. The crowd was electrified.
Rachmaninoff’s symphony hasn’t been done at SPAC in recent years, yet it’s a marvelous work of great color, multi-layers, and an expansive orchestration that gives the entire ensemble plenty to do and has all the composer’s trademark harmonies and long, romantic melodies. Denève conducted the four movements with much intensity and passion. The orchestra sounded incredible.
The first movement began mysteriously before melodies soared. Lyricism was both subtle and dramatic.
The second movement was rollicking and bright only to become languorous. This moved into a kind of part two that was frothy, light and sparkled with a jaunty mood. It ended magically.
The third was a lover’s theme with long beautiful lines that built and built, only to melt away. The finale was quick, festive and bright, with swirling lines and great sweeps of sound.
The crowd gave another standing ovation with cheers and whistles, especially for the various soloists who took a bow.
Tonight, Denève returns with another SPAC favorite, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, in a program of Bernstein, Gershwin and Ravel. And on Friday, Denève will join forces with Cirque de la Symphonie’s trapeze artists, who’ll work to several of John Williams’ movie pieces.