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The Bitter and the Sweet

by B.A. Nilsson on August 16, 2012 · 1 comment

The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 10

Arabella Steinbacher


In an effort to fill some of the many, many empty seats that gape during SPAC’s Philadelphia Orchestra performances, a special deal was offered last Friday by which a $22 lawn ticket could get you a spot inside.

I’m going to guess that, among the many who took advantage of the offer, there were some who discovered what a life-changing joy a live orchestral concert can be.

Trouble is, they didn’t sit near me. I was plagued with assholes. First, and most distractingly, there were the boutique parents, a special kind of moron who cultivates a brood of hellions and then schleps them everywhere. The wretched children have only superannuated children to guide them, and thus it was that a coven of them took over a near-the-front section of the house at which to jabber, run around and, I kid you not, explode balloons.

An usher eventually removed them, but not before they’d spattered Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra with the ordure of their arsenal of distractions. Higdon’s piece, written for the orchestra a dozen years ago, is a five-movement celebration of the ensemble and its personnel. And it was developed in a close-enough collaboration that individual player requests for solos and such were satisfied.

And that’s the point of a concerto for orchestra. But the spectre of Bartók looms large, and Higdon played no avoidance games. His Hungarian background suggested harmonies and rhythmic ideas that continue to inform contemporary voices, and Higdon’s orchestral style also resonated with the work of Hindemith in the brassier passages.

It’s a work that takes you beyond melody’s eager hook, but the sonority of a gentle moment for oboe and bassoon was one of many appealing elements. I often feel I’ve been string-orchestra’ed to death, but the second movement’s strings-only writing suggested colors I’d never before heard even as it built excitement with a clever backbeat.

Violins played soft glissandi of harmonics as the flutes–first one, then all three—set the third movement’s tone. Percussion got its day in the movement that followed, and it all built to an exhilarating fifth-movement frenzy, the performance of which augurs well for what will be conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s ongoing relationship with the orchestra.

Violinist Arabella Steinbacher made Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 her own on the first half’s second part. She needs to give it back.

It’s a beautiful, lyrical piece within a characteristically sardonic frame, but Steinbacher indulged the popular need to “interpret” the piece, which means goodbye to any consistent tempi. Whenever the piece shifted from arch to melodic, she slowed the hell down. Passages usually played with steely gusto dripped with more sugar than Memphis sweet tea. Where were those distracting kids when I needed them?

They were back for part two, when Nézet-Séguin conducted the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2. This time they were grown-up children, clutching beers, conversing throughout. The performance was excellent, but at this point the piece plays itself, its heart on its sleeve, its gentle melancholy punctuated by the sound of beer cup after plastic beer cup hitting the floor.