Saturday night, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center exceeded the huge crowd’s expectations not only with superb playing but that its featured guest, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, spoke to the crowd about the piece he was about to play.
Ma, who was greeted with a roar of welcome from the audience, rarely does this. But the Elgar Concerto in E minor (1919) is a particularly personal statement from a composer, who was struggling with ill health, poor finances and the ravages of World War I, Ma said.
“The concerto is about a life lived,” he said.
Ma went on to play the four-movement work vesting it with all his intensity, passion, technical mastery, and immense musical sensibility to thrill the crowd. The work is not so much about virtuosic passages, but expressing the often wonderful lyricism as a dialogue with the orchestra.
Ma was in luck with Stephane Deneve, who conducted with an equal level of sensitivity. The orchestra, always a great supportive group, provided exceptional balance even at the level of whispers.
Also on the program was Gabriela Frank’s “Concertino Cusqueno” (2012), which was a light, often playful short piece that used color in splotches with unusual tactics: a piccolo/bass clarinet/timpani trio, slapping strings and much plucking.
Debussy’s “La Mer,” which is one of the orchestra’s signature pieces, was beyond marvelous. Deneve set vibrant tempos and stretched the phrases to create mystery. The sea, the sun, the waves, the storm were all created par excellence.
On Sunday afternoon, concertmaster David Kim brought three colleagues and, with Saratoga Chamber Music Festival artistic director/pianist Andre-Michel Schub, showed what he could do away from his usual post. He played everything with gusto and forcefulness yet still soared and found moments of tenderness. His tone was always warm and rich.
He and Schub began with Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne” (1934), which borrowed from Stravinsky’s own “Pulcinella” and works by Giovanni Pergolesi. The six sections were lively with lovely melodies that Kim sung with eloquence. Technical passages were done briskly with great energy. Schub provided sensitive and stylish support.
Kim, violinist Marc Rovetti, violist Kerri Ryan and cellist Yumi Kendall were magical in Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” (1787). Their tones and execution were pure, attacks were soft, and the ensemble playing precise. Dynamics were strongly controlled.
The finale was Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major (1854, revised 1889). The performance was solid and very musical. Schub especially impressed with his high level of bravura playing that still managed to maintain exact balances with Kim and Kendall.
As an aside and thinking that the audience might have wondered why he was tapping a gadget with his foot while he played, Kim related with much charm and humor that it’s connected to his iPad, which provides a digital display of his music. He taps his foot to turn pages.
The next concert on the series is Tuesday with “Four Hands.”