"I remember when there was no shrubbery," says veteran Philadelphia violinist Herb Light, who has played here since 1966. "It has the best outdoor acoustics I've ever run into. Yannick couldn't believe what he heard."
The Cleveland Orchestra summers at the Blossom Music Center, the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia, but great orchestras don't always have congenial summers: The New York Philharmonic has only two weeks in Vail, Colo., in a season shared with the Philadelphians and others.
So Philadelphia Orchestra president and CEO Allison Vulgamore, who once worked for the New York orchestra, doesn't take Saratoga for granted - as if anyone would, when the deficit-plagued New York City Ballet, another SPAC resident company, just cut its usual three-week season back to 11 days. Might something similar be ahead for Philadelphia? Not if the orchestra can help it.
"We spend a lot of time talking to donors and participating in fund-raisers - not to take donors out of this community but to make sure the venue stays healthy," says Vulgamore. "We need to make sure we're not standing on quicksand together."
"There's no question that Saratoga is high on our priority list, and I can feel that we're high on theirs," said Nézet-Séguin. "I just met with the board . . . and everybody wants it to continue. What we want to achieve is more variety."
SPAC president Marcia White is more measured, saying it's "as certain as anything that anybody can be certain of" that the orchestra will continue unchanged. However, each of its performances costs SPAC an average of $180,000. And though corporate giving remains healthy, individual donations are not.
In fact, the orchestra has dropped its fees since 2008 - Vulgamore won't say how much, but described the decrease as "impactful" - in recognition of the fund-raising challenges.
Attendance figures are best perceived through various theories of relativity, and specific figures weren't available. The facility's covered seats number about 5,200, which means a full house is equal to two sellouts in many indoor theaters (Verizon Hall holds about 2,500). Some empty seats are to be expected. But almost half were empty on last week's rainy Thursday.
The hard numbers, says White, are "close to being flat, which is the new 'up.' So I think we'll be in pretty good shape."
SPAC attendance is stymied by Saratoga's better-known venue, the historic Saratoga Race Track, whose season coincides with the Philadelphia Orchestra's, making hotel rooms pricey and hard to come by.
"We're all facing difficulties," White said. "But I think we need [ballet and orchestra concerts] more than ever . . . and to instill that in the next generation."
Some semi-outdoor venues seem resigned to endless cycles of concerts that end with the 1812 Overture. SPAC does it, too - but when it does, it has a regiment in period costumes.
The facility's distinguished history is evident in the photos lining the administration office's walls: Classical superstars are everywhere, but also lesser-known serious artists. Though Charles Dutoit, longtime curator of Philadelphia's Saratoga season, retired last year and hasn't been replaced, the orchestra maintains a high standard of conductors, including such proven talents as Stéphane Denève and Gianandrea Noseda.
Though he was extremely well received by audiences, Nézet-Séguin's full impact in last week's trio of concerts has yet to be assessed. But he can't help but aid SPAC's latest marketing push into Montreal, his hometown.
Also, he arrives believing that summer concerts need not be less artistically distinguished than those in the regular season. Radio broadcasts suggest that some of his best performances with his Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal have been during quickly assembled summer gigs.
"I'm asking musicians to write less and less in their parts and erase a lot of things, so that we're free to look and listen and make music together very much in the moment," he says. "The short rehearsals help that musically."
He doesn't take that approach with every concert. Friday's program - Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra and the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 2 ("Little Russian") reprised successes from the better-rehearsed regular season, in what the conductor thinks of as the spirit of a tour program. The Brahms Symphony No. 4 on Wednesday was reprised from a Vail program earlier in the summer.
For the Thursday vocal concert, Nézet-Séguin had worked with soprano Angela Meade in Montreal and Bryan Hymel in London (both are graduates of Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts). "Yannick really understands singing and voices. You can just feel and hear and look at his face and know that you're in good hands," said Hymel, who recently scored a major success singing Berlioz's Les Troyens at the London Proms.
Though Lang Lang, Wednesday's soloist, was no stranger to the orchestra, having had his early successes in Philadelphia, he and Nézet-Séguin had only met when both were in Salzburg. "We met after I conducted Don Giovanni in a very nice castle," the conductor said. "It felt as though we'd known each other from before."
So when Lang Lang found a spot in his schedule that corresponded with Nézet-Séguin's Saratoga schedule, he jumped at it.
"Sometimes when I work with somebody for the first time, I hold back slightly to see how it develops," the pianist said after their first rehearsal. "But he just let me go. He's very confident when making interesting moves."
In fact, when Nézet-Séguin began the rehearsal with Lang Lang of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, his directions to the orchestra were much in that spirit:
"Bold! Bold! Bold! And big."
And it was.
Contact David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.