SARATOGA SPRINGS — To listen to the Philadelphia Orchestra last week over a three-day stretch is to marvel at how the orchestra’s craft and sound can pull a listener out of themselves.
On Thursday, that artistry probably gave Cristian Macelaru, the orchestra’s newly appointed conductor-in-residence, the thrill of his life when on short notice he had to replace the ailing music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin.
English trumpeter Alison Balsom made her debut in Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. Her playing was so nuanced, the piece seemed new in her hands. Her wonderfully elegant and subtle musicianship, sweet tone and precise technique made the piece sing. The first movement’s cadenza, which she wrote, showed even more brilliance.
Guitarist Milos Karadaglic, also making his debut, played Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez.” He played with great style, a mellow sound and a fluent technique, but was so amplified he was louder sometimes than the whole orchestra. This made for lost clarity. Still, the audience loved his playing and he gave an encore: a transcription of Manuel de Falla’s “Danza de la Molinera,” which had plenty of pizzazz.
Macelaru found his stride in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. Rather than dwell on sentiment, his tempos sped along with electricity and drive and with strong phrasing. The orchestra sounded marvelous and honored him by letting him take a bow alone.
Nezet-Seguin returned on Friday to conduct harpist Elizabeth Hainen, dressed in a fabulous red gown, in Tan Dun’s magical, exotic and touching “Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women.” Written in 13 sections, the harp and orchestra accompanied the women who sang in the three video screens, which were above and behind the orchestra.
Hainen played the complex extended techniques and wonderful melodies superbly. The orchestra was excellent in Tan Dun’s brilliant, colorful and hugely imaginative orchestration.
In a more prosaic setting, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, the orchestra showed off why it enjoys playing for Nezet-Seguin. His musicality, physical animation, expressive face and dynamic energy radiate the joy he has in doing what he does.
The orchestra was like a wondrous engine that kept finding another gear to give him what he wanted. He set traditional tempos but always with more ebb and flow and especially more flash, speed, and intensity toward the endings. The orchestra sounded superb and greatly enthused.
The Saturday concert welcomed Macelaru back with Montreal-based pianist Alain Lefevre in his SPAC debut. After a splashy, colorful transcription of Balakirev’s virtuosic piano piece “Islamey,” Lefevre entertained in Gershwin’s Concerto in F. He’s an exuberant performer who bobs and weaves with this very jazz-inflected music. He attacked the piano, especially in the big octave studies and played everything with a clear precision. The bluesy second movement gave principal trumpeter David Bilger a chance to shine and use his baseball cap as a mute.
The audience loved it and Lefevre gave them an encore: an original jazz composition that had flying fingers, two-handed progressions and lots of éclat.
Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” was written for the orchestra in 1940. The three movements had a lot of color, lush and romantic themes and a robust lyricism. It was all luscious, especially the dark, sensuous dance of the second movement with its hint of danger. Macelaru gave plenty of space and pacing.
It was all great stuff.
The Philadelphia has only four more concerts this week.
Don’t miss them.