The Philadelphia Orchestra opened its three-week stay at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night with a low-key but marvelously executed concert.
Under conductor Bramwell Tovey, who thrilled the huge crowd with his charismatic and precise conducting and his equally sensational piano playing, the program was the lighter fare of Gershwin and Copland rather than a more typical “serious” show.
That choice was deliberate, Tovey told the crowd, often with humorous tidbits of information. He said he wanted to present “iconic Americana pieces.” He couldn’t fail when that included Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” with Tovey at the keyboard, the overture from Gershwin’s Broadway show “Strike Up the Band” or Copland’s “magical, fairy tale, folk music-tinged score” of the Suite from the ballet “Billy the Kid.”
The orchestra sounded lustrous. The winds were bright and splashy, and the strings swooned. While the Copland and Gershwin overtures were fairly straight ahead, the surprise was “Rhapsody in Blue.” Tovey is known for being a terrific jazz pianist, and he put some of that to work. His approach was bold, sly and very individual. Tempos were never metric but free. Phrases ebbed and flowed in and out of time and dynamic levels. Tovey even squeezed in grace notes for greater jazz inflection.
The mood was very upbeat, almost spontaneous. The orchestra caught his mood to build the piece to a feverish pitch and the famous final bars. Tovey was a ball of fire between playing the piano and jumping up to conduct a few bars.
The crowd went wild, so he gave them an encore: a very stylish, jazzy “As Time Goes By.”
And that was only the first half. The second half began with three sections from Bernstein’s Broadway show “On the Town” (1944). Its offbeat rhythms are still catchy and fresh.
Tony Award-winning vocalist Brian Stokes Mitchell then came out to work the crowd for the rest of the show. He has a very smooth, big, baritone voice that has a great range, terrific breath control and excellent diction.
Backed by the addition of a rhythm section and fortified with a microphone, Mitchell put his star power to great effect as he strolled across the lip of the stage, sometimes adding a bit of fancy footwork to sell the songs. He radiated joie de vivre.
He put everything into a selection of Gershwin’s tunes (“’S Wonderful,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Our Love is Here to Stay”); tread casually in Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” and Ellington’s “Take the A Train”; got crowd input for “It Ain’t Necessarily So;” and was dramatic in Flaherty’s “Wheels of a Dream” from “Ragtime.” His final two were a mellow “What a Wonderful World” and a big “The Impossible Dream.”
Tovey and the orchestra were the perfect partners.
Tonight, pianist Jeremy Denk joins Tovey in Beethoven, Mahler and Strauss.