There’s nothing like hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra live at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
And when the programs are compelling, the soloists are fabulous and all are under a charismatic conductor like Bramwell Tovey, there’s no better way to spend an evening.
Thursday had pianist Jeremy Denk, who made his impressive SPAC debut with Beethoven’s Concerto No. 1. Before that, the orchestra began with Beethoven’s Overture to “Egmont.” Tovey made the piece exciting, with elegant pacing and tempos that brought out the work’s drama. Wind solos were finished, and phrasing was silken.
Beethoven’s piano concerto of 1795 was very classical in structure, but the tempos Denk took made for brilliance and huge virtuosic demands. He hit the mark with great technical and rhythmic precision, clarity of articulation and a lyrical musicality. Totally focused, he played the three movements with great gusto — obviously having fun, with his eyes closed and rarely looking at the keyboard as he played.
The first movement included Beethoven’s own extraordinarily conceived, long, dramatic and very fast cadenza, which Denk played marvelously well. The orchestra was invigorated by Denk’s mood and joined in joyously in an ongoing conversation.
Mahler rejected the intimate adagio he’d written for his first symphony, but we are now the grateful recipients. His “Blumine” was like a love letter to a beloved, it is that romantic and beautiful. Keeping in that mode was the Suite from Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier,” which was gorgeously extravagant, lush and richly colored and with that famous swirling waltz. It was thrilling to hear as Tovey plumbed its ecstatic depths.
A full moon and renown cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought out massive numbers of people Friday night to hear him play Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme.” Before that, the orchestra played a lovely, serene yet colorful “A Song of Summer” by Frederick Delius that Tovey called “a miniature masterpiece.”
Then, with a roar from the crowd, Ma came on stage to play a singularly personal, understated, and highly nuanced performance with rich, mellow tones. Except for the cadenza, which was flamboyant and dramatic, no one but Ma could get away with playing so many lines like whispers. The crowd was totally attentive — you could literally hear a pin drop.
Ma was completely immersed in the music, but solos for him are just another form of chamber music, so he and Tovey had a real connection going on. An encore was an arrangement of the lovely but sad andante cantabile from a Tchaikovsky string quartet, which Ma played masterfully.
After intermission it was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 (1937), a glorious piece for orchestra. The four movements ranged over dark themes with martial vigor and haunting lyricism to celebrate the will to endure and persevere. The orchestra never sounded better, and Tovey seemed thrilled to be a part of it.