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Cultural institutions deserve a summer vacation, even if it’s a busman’s holiday. Since 1966, the Philadelphia Orchestra has been spending some of the warmer months in Saratoga Springs, New York, where it recently wrapped up a three-week residency at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC). I came to town for the final three concerts in the series in mid-August, and it was a worthwhile experience to encounter these familiar musicians in an alternate setting.
I could easily sense some of the aspects that draw the orchestra—and several other marquee companies, including New York City Ballet—to this corner of Upstate New York. The temperature rarely crept above 75 degrees during my week there, a welcome change from the choke of summer in the city. Cool breezes blew through SPAC’s open-air venue each night, often carrying the pleasant scent of wildflowers and balsam trees from Saratoga State Park.
The orchestra also has an obvious connection with local audiences similar to the bonds formed here in Philadelphia. I saw many of the same faces returning night after night, with generations of families spreading out for picnics in the expansive lawn section behind the amphitheater. In pre-concert remarks before each performance, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin spoke to the crowds with familiarity and warmth. The Philadelphia Orchestra at SPAC is clearly a tradition for many people, just as it is at Verizon Hall or the Mann Center.
The power of the outdoors
The programming offered an interesting balance of repertory and an impressive slate of guest artists. I appreciated the opportunity to hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D-minor again, so soon after the orchestra played it in Philadelphia in June. The Saratoga outing featuring a different group of soloists, with Albany Pro Musica taking up the choral duties.
I came away feeling much the same as I had in Verizon Hall: that Nézet-Séguin had not yet found an individual view of the work, unlike his breathless and blazingly original take on Beethoven’s Fifth. But I found many elements of value. The hushed statement of the fourth movement’s musical theme in the double basses, anchored by principal Hal Robinson, was jaw-droppingly delicate, even with the amplification necessary for an outdoor performance. American tenor Russell Thomas struck the ideal balance of stentorian heft and Lieder-like delicacy in “Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen.”
I also enjoyed Gabriela Lena Frank’s companion piece, Pachamama Meets an Ode, more than I had on first hearing. This is due in part to the vital contribution of Albany Pro Musica, who intoned every word of the brief text with linguistic dexterity and precise pitch. But I suspect it also has something to do with setting: Frank’s short composition addresses climate change, among other themes, and encountering the work within a bucolic forest added to the urgency of preservation. Nézet-Séguin led a hazy, shimmering reading of the score that was notable for its feathery, transparent woodwinds.
Blue and Goosby
I missed soprano Angel Blue in Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 back in February. She called in sick to the performance I attended, and with no understudy available, the cantata was replaced by Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. Luckily, Blue was in the bloom of health in Saratoga, effortlessly floating Barber’s tricky high B-flat. Blue’s generally sunny disposition was occasionally at odds with the wistful nature of James Agee’s text, but she sang with genuine feeling and a warm, pretty tone.
Blue also sang Valerie Coleman’s This Is Not a Small Voice, a vital paean to the power and resilience of Black women, with a text by Philadelphia poet Sonia Sanchez. Another Philly author, Annette Deigh, supplied the lyrics for Eternal Flame, which received its world premiere. (Deigh was present at the concert and bowed with Blue and Nézet-Séguin.)
Coleman—formerly the flutist of Imani Winds, who has emerged as an important composer in recent years—balanced attractive lyricism and dramatic tension in both songs. Blue displayed an extraordinary dynamic range and vivid commitment.
The fast-rising American violinist Randall Goosby made his Philadelphia Orchestra debut at SPAC in these performances, ahead of his first appearance at Verizon Hall this October. He chose Bruch’s familiar Violin Concerto No. 1 in G-minor, which he infused with refinement in the sedate opening movements and impishness in the Allegro finale. He consistently summoned a brawny, chestnut-colored tone, and he let loose in a rousing encore: Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s “Louisiana Blues Strut (A Cakewalk).” His upcoming Philly appearances, playing both of Florence Price’s Violin Concertos, are mandatory for local music lovers.
There were some disappointments, like a meandering rendition of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D-minor, and some surprises: I doubt I’ve heard Rossini’s Overture to The Thieving Magpie given such serious thought. There were also moments of valediction. The orchestra said goodbye to several important players at these performances, including bassist Robinson and principal trumpet David Bilger, who’s leaving to take up a professorship at Northwestern. Gloria DePasquale retired after 45 years in the cello section—one of the last players hired by Eugene Ormandy.
The audience cheered their departures as Nézet-Séguin shared fond memories of each from the stage. They also cheered the fine music-making they continued to provide in their final concerts. Evening after evening, it was clear that the people of Saratoga Springs love their, and our, Philadelphia Orchestra.
Disclosure: Saratoga Performing Arts Center sponsored Kelsall's press trip to Saratoga Springs and provided his local accommodations.
What, When, Where
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer 2022 residency in Saratoga Springs. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor. Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs, New York. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.
The Saratoga Performing Arts Center is an ADA-compliant venue.
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