Conductor David Robertson, who made his debut Thursday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, doesn’t stand on ceremony.
Before the Philadelphia Orchestra concert began, he spoke to the huge crowd in a very personable and humorous way about the evening’s program, which was centered on how composers convey warmth. That was combined with the “joyous warmth of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the masterful artistry of (cellist) Yo-Yo Ma,” he said.
The concert began with Daniel-Francois Auber’s 1830s overture to his hit opera “Fra Diavolo.” Robertson said Auber was the Bob Dylan of his day. Although it had a military-inspired rhythm, it was perky, delicate and transparently orchestrated. Robertson, who is the music director of the St. Louis Symphony, conducted in a buoyant style that included some hops and skips to his footwork even as his stick technique was precise.
Ma entered to huge applause and gave the crowd a wave and a big smile before settling down to a multi-faceted, passionately intense reading of Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor. He played with strong nuances, effortless virtuosity and rich tones.
One of the attractions to a Ma performance is how expressive his face is. Although he more often plays with his eyes closed, he’s quick to give the violin or cello section a smile especially when it picks up one of his phrases or echoes the melody he’s just played. It’s a collaborative effort for him despite his obvious ease in the soloist’s chair.
Robertson kept the balances very tight especially because the cello was not amplified. The orchestra was extremely sensitive and sympathetic to Ma’s lines and nuances. Obviously in a good mood, the two men took several curtain calls bounding on and off the stage and posing in sprinter Usain Bolt’s singular posture of his arms stretched and his fingers pointed like arrows. The crowd, which was on its feet for all of this, laughed.
After intermission, Ma returned to play Faure’s poignant Elegy, Op. 24 with great relish and feeling. The crowd loved that one, too.
The finale was Shostakovich’s remarkable Symphony No. 1 in F minor, which he wrote in 1925 when he was 18 as a graduation requirement for the Leningrad Conservatory. Even then, his signature style, exceptional orchestration and sense of color were apparent. The four movements have great vitality, individuality and a unique economy of instrumentation that makes several passages more like chamber music.
After playing the first movement, which was both a dark dance and a brazen and flippant commentary with many wind solos that were played exceptionally, the crowd broke into applause. Robertson turned and said that the piece was one of his favorites, too — which brought many chuckles.
The second movement was brilliantly sparkling with swiftly moving scales before it became a chorale and then an expansive mix. The third yearned for the distant horizons with bleak colors before the finale’s fast and furious and very loud music. It ended after a slow compelling coda in a brilliantly brash flourish. The orchestra sounded sensational. Robertson milked every phrase.
Tonight is vocalist Tony DeSare, a Hudson Falls native who’s made the big time. Steven Reineke will conduct, Montego Glover will also sing in “Sinatra and Beyond.”