Photo credits: Jessica Griffin
Photo credits: Jessica Griffin

BalletX kicks off Philadelphia Orchestra’s season opener

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s season opening gala on September 28 was complete with a swank cocktail & dinner party in the Kimmel Center’s Commonwealth Plaza for the tux & gown patrons mingling with casual dressers who were there just for the concert in Verizon Hall. However, dressed, this proved a fancy and uniquely dancy concert night to remember with superstar pianist Lang Lang and BalletX dancing a work by New York City Ballet choreographer Tiler Peck, with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin leading the Fabulous Philadelphians.

The orchestra has partnered with dance companies over the years. BalletX fits beautifully into this program by Tiler Peck and the score by contemporary African American composer Valerie Coleman titled ‘Umoja, Anthem for Unity.’

The ensemble costumed in cobalt-hued flowing tunics against the sea of musicians dressed in black orchestra formals are at first positioned in a sculptural cluster. They are then propelled by Coleman’s symphonic themes, laced with driving rhythmic passages that bloom with cathartic orchestral warmth, igniting Tiler’s classical style of tours, turns, and flash duets.

The full orchestra filled most of the stage, so the dancers were limited to the marley flooring on the downstage apron. BalletX women were on pointe, but it was a challenging tight dance space for Peck’s flash duets.

There was some scrambling as Peck had them bolting offstage and charging back in for unison jumps that looked blurry in key spots. But mostly, the dancers were radiant in the direct sound cloud of the whole orchestra.

The company has several new dancers, and even with some blurry unison work, this ensemble impressed with palpable esprit de corps that certainly exuded Coleman’s ‘Unity’ themes.

The dancers – Shawn Cusseaux, Jonah Delgado, Francesca Forcella, Savannah Green, Jared Kelly, Skyler Lubin, Jonathan Montepara, Ben Schwarz, Ashley Simpson, and Andrea Yorita – bring a Robbins-esque breeziness to crowded choreography in this 12-minute work. And they were embraced by this mostly classical music crossover audience, who gave them a lusty standing ovation.

Musical director Nezet-Seguin has previously partnered with the city’s notable dance companies, including Philadanco, Philadelphia Ballet, and Brian Sanders Junk’s mostly aerial ballet production of Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ so far the most ambitious collaboration. 

Dancing in front of a full orchestra carries many risks. For the dancers, it is a rare opportunity to be in the musicians’ direct sound field and feel the music’s energy on their bodies. However, much can be missed with 100 musicians at one’s back and the limited depth of space in which to move.

Next, without fanfare, pianist Lang Lang was all smiles as he strolled onstage with Yannick and launched into Camille Saint-Saen’s Piano Concerto no 2. It is a monster piece for the soloist and the orchestra, with the composer’s mach-speed keyboard runs, hand-over-hand note clusters, precision articulations, and off-the-cliff arrests with the rest of the orchestra. It is a demon dance partnering with the Steinway.

Ever the expressive soloist (even though he has reigned it in over the years), Lang indulges in hand dance improv as a free hand will float above the keyboard with a flamboyance. Audiences love his expressiveness, purists find it showy, but without doubt, he has technical and interpretive artistry in his hands. And he wasn’t holding back his reveling in his possessed virtuosity. Lang had severe tendinitis in his arm and wrist five years ago, so playing such an athletic piece with his signature body moves may be his personal victory lap.

Meanwhile, Nezet-Seguin sustained the concerto’s orchestral detailing and balance over the three movements. There was never a tug of war with the soloist, which can quickly occur with such a powerhouse concerto that keeps escalating in its thunderous intensity for both the soloist and the full orchestra.

The audience was on its feet again, this time shouting bravos for every musician onstage. Lang Lang encored with a song from the film ‘Mary Poppins,’ and more than one child in the audience expressed delight.

The concert closer was Anton Dvorak’s ‘Symphony no. 8,’ an unabashed showpiece for the Philadelphia Orchestra, known for its rich texture and precision of its full strings, which on this night engulfed Verizon Hall. The orchestra nailed the lush articulation in the drama of Dvorak’s pastoral progressions and epic brass heralds as the composer’s ode to the Bohemian countryside home in 1889 Vysoko, 40 miles outside of Prague. 

The program was performed without intermission, and Nezet-Seguin didn’t break a sweat, looking buff in a short-cropped velvet jacket and bouncy red shoes, and had even a few new moves to kick the season off in maestro-divo style.

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