Philadelphia Orchestra finale excited SPAC audience

Lawrence Foster
The Saratogian

By Judith White

The annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular Saturday evening at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center was a dizzying whirl through great music played by the Philadelphia Orchestra and a passionate guest soloist.

Guest conductor Lawrence Foster easily gained the large audience’s approval with his no-nonsense approach, as he had also done just the previous evening, when he easily led the phenomenal pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the orchestra through a sublime performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto.

But on this night, it was 23-year-old Georgian (Caucasus) pianist Khatia Buniatishvili making a stunning debut with the Philadelphians, performing Tchaikovsky’s well-loved Piano Concerto No. 1.

SPAC’s recently retired artistic director and principal conductor Charles Dutoit likely tapped this young pianist after she played at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, where he is the orchestra’s music director, and where he seems to do much of his talent scouting.

Through his 21 seasons at SPAC, Dutoit gave countless talented young artists important exposure, particularly on the popular “Tchaik Nite” programs.

At this one, Buniatishvili was quick to show her intensity and technical brilliance, but it was the close-ups on the video screens of her rapturous face that really grabbed attention.

She smiled, eyes closed, as she negotiated huge chords up and down the keyboard, her cloud of dark hair resettling to hide her expression.

Dressed in an open-backed, figure-fitting black gown that bottomed out with a kicky bias-cut skirt, she was a knock-out, with confidence beyond her years and a keen flair for drama, both in her body language and her playing.

Buniatishvili was absolutely riveting.

Tchaikovsky’s brilliant writing gives great substance to the orchestra in this concerto, and it rose to his challenges. Associate principal flute David Cramer’s introductory solo to the slow movement was particularly dreamy.

The audience applauded the soloist after each movement, and was still roaring its approval through multiple curtain calls before intermission, when the a huge semi trailer truck took advantage of the cover noise and came roaring down the hill to the loading dock.

Clark Transfer Inc.’s slogan, printed on the side of the truck, said it all: “We get the show on the road.” It was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s final performance of the season at SPAC, and no time was lost in packing up for the trip home.

Guest conductors with the Philadelphia Orchestra must feel like they’ve died and gone to heaven, so responsive are these musicians.

They don’t just play it the way they did the last time, which was evident in some of the phrasing and tempos Foster pulled from his extensive bag of tricks.

Arms moving gracefully, wide in the air, he sometimes seemed as if he had wings.

The program opened with a swirling romp through the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera, “Eugene Onegin,” and included a wrenchingly romantic performance of the Fantasy-Overture, “Romeo and Juliet,” with Don Liuzzi’s timpani sounding the precious final heartbeats of this tragic love story.

After every drop of emotion was wrung dry, the Philadelphian Orchestra closed its 45th SPAC season with the 1812 Overture, crisply and colorfully delivered, full of energy and cannon blast accents.