Philadelphia Orchestra goes operatic in its summer stand at Saratoga

Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in his Saratoga Performing Arts Center debut in 2012. (Lori Van Buren / Albany Times Union)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin's Metropolitan Opera appointment will become a more tangible reality in August when Met stars Isabel Leonard, Susanna Phillips, and Matthew Polenzani perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra to close out the Philadelphians' annual summer residency at  Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

The Saratoga schedule, announced Sunday, runs Aug. 2-19 and is the first under Elizabeth Sobol, the new president and CEO at the center, commonly known as SPAC. The Aug. 19 "A Night at the Opera" concert was an immediate priority after her appointment last summer. "I talked to Peter Gelb [Met general manager] before I even came up here," she said in a phone interview from Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "It's been years since SPAC did an opera night."

Past opera nights at SPAC have tended to involve a single superstar, such as Renée Fleming. Directing this well-matched trio of singers -- all different voice types that lend themselves to ensembles as well as solo arias -- reflect Nézet-Séguin's growing clout. Beginning with the Met season that opens this fall, he will conduct two productions a year as "music director designate." He becomes the full-fledged music director there in 2020. His contract as music director for the orchestra extends through the 2025-26 season.

This summer's Saratoga season is organized similarly to recent Kimmel Center mini-festivals: Each week is devoted to a different nationality of music. 

Orchestra concerts Aug. 2-4, conducted by principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève, will be a Russian festival featuring the celebrated young pianist Conrad Tao playing Rachmaninoff. A "Cirque de la Symphonie" program Aug. 4 includes aerialists and dancers performing to Stravinsky and Shostakovich.

Guest conductor Marin Alsop and cellist Yo-Yo Ma open the Aug. 9-11 American festival with Ma playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto, which the Czech composer wrote while in New York City. An all-Gershwin night follows on Aug. 10, featuring jazz pianist Marcus Roberts. Guest conductor Bramwell Tovey will close the trio of concerts with Ives' Variations on America and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 ("New World").

Nézet-Séguin conducts the French festival, Aug. 17-19, first with a Saint-Saens/Berlioz program and then with the reprise of a concert from his recent "Paris Festival" here, with Louis Lortie playing the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1. He concludes with the opera night. 

Sobol, the former president of Universal Music Classics, brings to her new position at SPAC a wide range of contacts and points of reference. One priority is creating seasonwide parallels with the other major resident company, the New York City Ballet (which precedes the orchestra with a July 5-15 residency).

The key word to her approach, says Sobol, is "immersive," pointing to connections between the orchestra's Aug. 9 performance of John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine and the New York City Ballet's July 5 dance piece set to the same composer's Fearful Symmetries. Also, the ballet company's repertoire has several composers in common with the orchestra's Russian festival, whose opening night will feature New York City Ballet dancers.

Though innovation has a checkered past at SPAC (most notoriously, conductor Dennis Russell Davies paired Philip Glass and Wagner operatic excerpts with mixed reception), Sobol hopes to push audiences discreetly forward. Two examples are having jazz pianist Marcus Roberts (instead of a typical classical pianist) for Rhapsody in Blue on Aug. 10, and Pat Metheny's Duo Concerto for Vibraphone and Marimba -- in a version arranged by the orchestra's principal percussionist, Christopher Deviney -- on Aug. 11.

A light concert series titled Philadelphia for Families includes Aug. 5 and 12 movie nights with the orchestra accompanying E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark (respectively) plus a Broadway night  Aug. 16 titled Sophisticated Ladies. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center rounds out the SPAC season with six concerts Aug. 6-22.

Some older orchestra members lament that in past years, audiences packed the 5,200 covered seats in the indoor/outdoor amphitheater. However, the total 2016 attendance (despite severe weather and competition from the 2016 Summer Olympics) was 32,038 for 11 performances, averaging 2,913 per night -- more than what the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall can hold.

In future seasons, Sobol envisions a concert series devoted to artists such as Time for Three and Bela Fleck -- "those with classical training but who are doing something different with it." Also, part of her "immersive" mantra is emphasizing the natural beauty of the park and buildings that surround the amphitheater.

"The programming isn't going to be radically different, but how we're thinking about it and how we're communicating it is different," she said. "I can make a different case for why people should come."