The Philadelphia Orchestra took a turn to the new music side Thursday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, with striking results.
The first half was given to music written in the last decade. Conductor Bramwell Tovey, composer of the first piece, “Urban Runway,” wittily told the crowd about the genesis of his piece, which premiered in 2008. Shopping was the inspiration, specifically those who buy at designer stores (most of the orchestra) and those who favor pre-owned (the viola section).
The orchestra got to sound catchy, jazzy, hip and cool with lots of swagger. The violas (those who wear socks with their sandals, Tovey said), played a conservative but pretty tune. It was a very successful piece, with a lot of offbeat rhythms and color and infused with Tovey’s mordant brand of humor. The crowd got the message right away with much laughter.
The second work was Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto (2005) which featured British percussionist Colin Currie, who moved with an athletic agility among marimba, vibraphone, temple blocks, bongos, bass drum and cymbals, which were strung across the lip of the stage. He did a remarkable job, at one point using both hands while one foot tapped a bass drum pedal and he stood on the other.
A percussion work is about rhythm and the quality of sound of each instrument, which can be altered with different mallets or even the number of mallets used. No melodies were especially evident in the work, nor was there an obvious tonal center, but motivic writing on many levels was. The orchestra did well with the off-center parts.
The piece was in one movement, with two outer sections sandwiching a slower, more piquant section. Currie had long licks, offbeat accents and a lot of jazzy inflections with fast passages and a whir of mallets. The slower section shimmered.
Balance never seemed an issue. The cadenza near the end was an extravaganza of color and accents among temple blocks, bass drum, drums, bongos and cymbals. Currie was fantastic.
The crowd gave an immediate standing ovation with huge cheers and whistles. Currie, who often smiled during the performance, beamed. Higdon, too, took a bow.
A more accessible piece was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major (1812). Tovey said the piece revealed Beethoven’s “individual spirit.” Although the orchestra knows the work well, the musicians gave it their complete enthusiasm. The winds were especially consistent in their attacks and phrasing. Tovey conducted with vigor and precision.
The symphony is one of Beethoven’s most lyrical and profoundly rhythmic works. The first movement was full of laughter and joy; the slow second is beautiful with some of the most gorgeous part writing; the third began with a bright, rollicking tempo that opened into expansive vistas; and the finale was very speedy and boisterous.
The crowd gave a standing ovation and applauded for a long time.
Tonight, violinist Sarah Chang entertains, with Gianandrea Noseda conducting works by Sibelius, Barber and Tchaikovsky.