SARATOGA SPRINGS – Orchestral color and what four different composers did with it was the focus for Thursday night’s Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. It was also the second night that Kensho Watanabe, the orchestra’s assistant conductor, had to fill in on short notice for music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin. He did a sensational job and was obviously having the time of his life.
Up first was Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral.” Its mystical, quiet beginning evolved into a lyrical, expansive, wide-horizons vista that made much use of the percussion section’s chimes and bells. According to Higdon, the piece has been performed at least 700 times since its premiere in 1999. Meant to be contemplative, it was very atmospheric.
Aaron Copland’s famous “Appalachian Spring Suite” (1945 version) had bounce, vitality, lovely light melodies and a glorious presentation of the “Simple Gifts” tune. Watanabe set good tempos with his efficient, precise beat. Copland’s trademark spare orchestration allowed for great variety from a feather-weight quiet to majestic organ-like chords at full throttle.
Ottorino Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome” (1917) featured four fountains over the span of a day. Through skillful use of various instruments and dynamic levels, he captured the splash of water, the sunlight, the bird song. Subtle pastel colors and a quiet lyricism became lush greens and blues with bigger volumes, some brass and fast strings. Brilliant brassy reds and a loud full orchestra brought sunshine at mid-day that ebbed into a lavender twilight with long lines and delicate bird calls. Great stuff and the orchestra sounded fabulous.
Mason Bates’ “Anthology of Fantastic Zoology” (2015) described 11 different creatures. Unpredictable rhythms, offbeat entrances, short motifs, unusual percussion instruments and an array of drums set up at front stage right; offstage strings, trills and tremolos, and flutter tonguing in the winds were only part of his expert orchestration. It required a lot of concentration from the players as the piece ebbed and flowed, swelled then collapsed before its final fiery push. The crowd gave it a standing ovation and greeted Bates with particular fervor. \
On Friday night, rhythm or “sound spice” as conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya called it, was added to color. The composers were all Latin and the pieces were all new to SPAC.
Arturo Marquez’s “Danzon No. 2” (1994) with its seductive, insouciant rhythms and melodies made one want to get up and dance. The orchestra did well but a Cuban orchestra would have had that inner connect that the music needed. Harth-Bedoya, who is Peruvian and music director of the Ft. Worth Symphony, kept pushing them for more.
They did much better with Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto (1965) with orchestra principal harpist Elizabeth Hainen making the virtuosic part sound easy. Tons of technical passages and glissandos flew by. Interestingly, she moved to a different harp, an electric acoustic harp, for the third movement because its sound has more volume to counter the loud, busy orchestral part. A standing ovation and several curtain calls followed.
Astor Piazzolla’s “Tangazo” (1969) started with a dark lament before hitting its familiar catchy melodies. Principal French hornist Jennifer Montone did some terrific high work. Jimmy Lopez’s “Peru negro” (2012), which Harth-Bedoya had commissioned, was unrelenting in its frenzied Afro-Peruvian rhythms, syncopated tunes, loud brass and the pounding on three Peruvian cajones that are boxes played like bongos.
Next week is the orchestra’s final week ending Saturday with Mozart’s “Requiem.”