Orchestra shines under Alsop's graceful lead

Marin Alsop
The Saratogian

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Conductor Marin Alsop brought her baton home Wednesday, leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in Saratoga Springs, her childhood summer home.

Although Alsop has often served as guest conductor with the Philadelphians, this was her first opportunity to strut onto the amphitheatre stage at the Saratoga Performing Arts |Center as guest conductor. An enthusiastic audience was there to welcome her home.

Alsop is entering her second year as music director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and has an extensive resume of credits, awards and firsts.

Alsop's father, LaMar, is retired concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, and her mother is a cellist with that ensemble. They have performed at SPAC since its first season in 1966.

The program began with Samuel Barber's "Second Essay for Orchestra," Alsop moving the large, full sound back and forth through time changes and carefully built crescendos.

Gil Shaham was guest soloist for the evening, playing two unfamiliar works from the violin repertoire: Mozart's "Violin Concerto No. 2," written when the genius composer was just 19, and Pablo Sarasate's "Fantasy on Mozart's The Magic Flute," a technically demanding work showcase for violin with orchestra.

Midwest-born Shaham had a direct, accessible stage presence throughout his performance here and, although he had never before performed with Alsop, the two seemed connected, smiling at each other often.

Shaham offered a clear, silvery tone, trilling through the concerto as the orchestra matched his straightforward approach. The plain-speaking piece could have been rather boring, but neither the violinist nor the conductor let that happen.

Sarasate's "Fantasy on The Magic Flute" had all the dazzle and technical obstacles for the soloist that the concerto had withheld, and Shaham tossed off one after another of its showy passages as if they held no challenge, smiling throughout.

An understated showman, this nimble-fingered violinist is simply superb.

Maestro Alsop chose Brahms' "Symphony No. 4" as showcase for the Philadelphia Orchestra on this night, and led the musicians through a passionate performance.

The first movement Allegro had the conductor rocking side-to-side as it developed, her arms extending widely to encompass the ensemble when she wanted more expression.

Principal clarinet Ricardo Morale's solo in the Andante moderato seemed to grow organically from the ensemble, building with beauty as it progressed. The string section plucked delicacy into the mix under Alsop's graceful lead.