The Philadelphia Orchestra under conductor Giancarlo Guerrero performed blockbuster concerts Wednesday and Thursday nights at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
On Wednesday, Guerrero, who hails from Costa Rica, flailed a willing orchestra into a wild party mood in music that had loads of Spanish flavor. To add spice to the mix, he had banjo magician Béla Fleck perform Fleck’s Banjo Concerto (“The Impostor”) which Guerrero and Fleck premiered in 2011 with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
The concerto came after a colorful, brassy, energetic playing of Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture.” The three-movement concerto is not Fleck’s first excursion into classical writing, but it is his first concerto. There was a lot of color, some interesting offbeat writing, hints of bluegrass and jazz and some pretty melodies.
Mostly, the writing was exploratory without too much architecture, with motifs passed around the sections and to the banjo. Fleck’s part was not especially showy — actually it was fairly tame. Only in his cadenza near the end did he show some of what he’s famous for.
The large crowd cheered enough to get an encore, and then it heard a wizard at work. Basing what he improvised around the theme song of the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies,” which Fleck’s hero, Earl Scruggs, originally performed, Fleck added a little Bach to the mix to thrill the crowd. It was spellbinding and the crowd erupted in a huge roar.
The second half was party time. Guerrero did some sensational conducting to bring Falla’s Suite from “The Three-Cornered Hat” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio espagnol” to electric heights. He stalked the climaxes like a matador challenging a bull.
The crowd loved it and got an encore: Geronimo Gimenez’s tasty “La Boda de Luis Alonso” (2006).
On Thursday, it was an all-Russian show, with cellist Johannes Moser. After a delightfully delicate waltz from the ballroom scene from Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin,” Moser performed Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 (1959). He played the guts out of the four movements. His intensity was so fierce and his focus had such rigor that it left listeners breathless.
Although he has recorded the work, his impassioned statements, which ranged from rough repeated bowings at full volume and hundreds of notes to beautiful sinuous lines played reverentially, would have been hyperbole if they hadn’t been so ferociously honest. Guerrero and the orchestra managed to keep up.
The audience roared its approval and got an encore: a meditative Sarabande from Bach’s Suite No. 1, which Moser ornamented and phrased in an individual style.
Guerrero was all smiles in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. He moved tempos along rapidly, stretched the beautiful lines with much musicality to allow them to breathe and lilt, brought out the secondary themes and colors, and used a wide range of volume. This gave the music’s drama an impetuous, ecstatic quality.