With the arrival of its new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the fall, the dawn of a new era is at hand for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Audiences at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this week will get more than a sampling of what’s in store.
Starting on Wednesday (8/8/12), the 37-year old French Canadian conductor leads three consecutive nights of performances at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The enticing programs showcase the range of his strengths as well as where he plans to take the Philly in the future. In tried and true SPAC tradition, they’ll be plenty of mainstream masterpieces with great soloist, including pianist Lang Lang and violinist Arabella Steinbacher. But there’s also a night of opera excerpts on Thursday and even some contemporary music on Friday.
“From when I signed with the orchestra (two years ago), we had planned this as part of the crescendo leading to my official arrival as music director this coming fall,” says Nézet-Séguin of his appearances at SPAC. “Saratoga is a main partner of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The history is rich and the future is a priority.”
That’s a welcome statement to hear, considering how the orchestra’s programming at SPAC has long seemed an after thought, with summer after summer full of retreads of largely the same well-trodden ground. (Just count the times we’ve heard “Bolero” and “Pictures at an Exhibition,” among other warhorses.) It’s long been hoped that a renewed life for the Philly will carry over into a greater vibrancy at its long-time summer home.
Nézet-Séguin pledged to have a continued hand in the programming at SPAC, but was evasive, however, when asked if we can expect to see him on the podium every August.
“We certainly hope so,” he replied. “But I have to balance all the rest of my activities and we are slowly but surely crafting my summer appearances.”
Certainly there’s a lot more riding on the young man’s shoulders than just where he spends each August.
Nézet-Séguin’s appointment comes after an unusually troubled and extended period for the Philadelphia Orchestra. It has been without a music director since Christoph Eschenbach abruptly left in 2008 after a tumultuous five years (an unusually brief run for a music director). In his stead, Charles Dutoit was given only an interim designation of chief conductor and artistic advisor while the orchestra began the arduous search for new artistic leadership (a process that can take years.)
From a financial perspective, things have been even worse. In April of last year the symphony became the first U.S. orchestra to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. While bankruptcy didn’t mean going-out-of-business, it’s hardly an encouraging sign to audiences or funders. In late June this year, a reorganization plan was approved by the courts, with financial cuts hopefully leading to long term solvency.
Soon the bright and shining presence of Yannick Nézet-Séguin arrives at the podium. Can he wipe away all this troubled history with a few strokes of the baton? His answer is to focus on music and audiences.
“My very first responsibility is to have the feeling that there’s something strong musically between the musicians and myself, a mutual understanding, a chemistry and electricity,” he says. Because some spark already existed — he first conducted the orchestra back in December 2008 — Nézet-Séguin accepted the high profile assignment.
“This was not part of the career plan really,” he says, “but I could not imagine after the chemistry we found that I could delay it.”
Nézet-Séguin seeks to forge the same magical connection he’s found with Philadelphia musicians with Philadelphia audiences.
“Everybody in Philadelphia is proud of their orchestra but being proud doesn’t mean attending the concerts,” he explains. “We want to seduce the audiences that have left us for various reasons. To do so requires many things that are extra-musical, like more accessibility and getting out of the concert hall, plus more risk taking in programming. There will be more Baroque music, more vocal music, and more contemporary American composers in future seasons.”
Some of those agendas appear this summer in Saratoga.
Wednesday’s program features Lang Lang in the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 and it will be the conductor’s first collaboration with the young Chinese superstar pianist. “This will be the audience witnessing our musical meeting,” explains the conductor. “That’s something that summers can give — a more exciting or spontaneous event, rather than when it’s done so many years in advance.”
Thursday’s emphasis on opera – mostly Puccini and Verdi, but also Rossini, Donizetti and more – will show Nézet-Séguin in one of his areas of specialty. A sign of his prowess in the genre is that he’s become an annual presence at the Metropolitan Opera where in recent seasons he’s conducted Bizet’s “Carmen,” Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” Gounod’s “Faust.”
And Friday features the Concerto for Orchestra, by Jennifer Higdon, a Philadelphia composer who’s worked extensively with the orchestra. “The orchestra commissioned the concerto 10 years ago and when I played it 10 months ago, I fell in love with it,” says Nézet-Séguin. “It’s important to bring with us some newer repertoire that I believe in strongly. I think audiences want the best quality and if it’s an entertaining evening, there’s no reason why we should refrain ourselves.”
While focusing on repertoire, Nézet-Séguin also knows it’s the players that have always been at the heart of the Philadelphia Orchesta.
“A great orchestra has many aspects, including an absolutely breathtaking accuracy. But this is achieved by more and more orchestras throughout the world,” he says. “What makes Philadelphia unique is the very special blend in the sound, which is achieved not by such a unanimity of purpose but more because everyone gives so much of him or herself. It’s a very generous orchestra. I’ve never experienced an orchestra in which from the first to last desk everyone is giving all in such a manner and taking responsibility for the sound.”
Here’s some photos from Nézet-Séguin’s arrival in Philadelphia in 2010 – at the Kimmel Center, on a stroll, and on a trolly. That’s his partner, the violinist Pierre Tourville, seated behind him in the last shot.