Classical at the casino - ka-ching?

The Bay-Atlantic Symphony , led by 17-year music director Jed Gaylin, fits on the stage of the 900-seat Music Box theater in a way the New York Philharmonic would not.
The Bay-Atlantic Symphony , led by 17-year music director Jed Gaylin, fits on the stage of the 900-seat Music Box theater in a way the New York Philharmonic would not.
Posted: July 14, 2014

ATLANTIC CITY - Behind doors so richly red they glow even amid the glittering casino, the Borgata Resort's Music Box theater on Sunday evening will welcome something it wasn't built for: the Bay-Atlantic Symphony playing the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 with superstar pianist Yuja Wang.

There are no obvious explanations.

"It's an eclectic age," says Jed Gaylin, the 17-year music director of the Bay-Atlantic Symphony. "Classical music is no longer 'that stuff.' It's a change of pace."

Indeed - and for all parties concerned.

"When I was looking at photos of famous people who played the theater, [concert pianist] Yevgeny Kissin wasn't there, but Jerry Seinfeld was," observed up-and-coming violinist Stefan Jackiw, who played the Borgata last year with the orchestra and says it was an overall positive experience.

Music Box audiences range from classical types to people more likely to buy the $25 tickets spontaneously and applaud midmovement after an impressive soloist flourish - as at a jazz concert. Curtis Institute graduate Wang, 27, who tends to mix unconventional venues with high-profile concert halls around the world, is ready: "I just play piano. Audiences clap where they wish."

Wang's typically stratospheric high heels (and hemlines) will no doubt have her cutting as glamorous a figure as anyone has ever seen on the Music Box stage. But she also brings artistic credibility that has made her a top pianist - with a sensibility the opposite of a poker player's. Though her personality defies aloof, classical-music stereotypes, she won't be at the slots ("I don't gamble") and chances are her fans are similar. Classical music is proven over centuries, has scant room for improvisation, and is so cultivated that it leaves little leeway for luck or chance.

Symphonic music in gambling resorts isn't unknown (the Philadelphia Orchestra plays the casino mecca Macau on its Far East tours). Still, with Atlantic City's economy faltering (one casino closed in January, another has announced it will shutter Aug. 31, a third is in bankruptcy, and a fourth could close in September), you might expect entertainment to trend a little lower rather than aim at a classical niche.

The Borgata, however, stands apart from the rest of Atlantic City, both geographically (it has its own expressway exit) and philosophically, having long maintained that upscale dining, spa, and entertainment are as much a part of its appeal as gaming.

"Atlantic City has followed that '70s, '80s style of brand entertainment," said Joe Lupo, senior vice president of operations. "When the Borgata opened in 2003 we took a different approach . . . to speak to a different customer that hadn't been coming to Atlantic City."

The Bay-Atlantic Symphony's series of three 5 p.m. Sunday Borgata concerts (the others are Aug. 3 and 17) represents a convergence of factors. The orchestra has long been a Shore presence, with concerts in Avalon, Cape May, and non-casino venues in Atlantic City. And the Borgata doesn't just market to big-city visitors.

"Unlike Las Vegas, our customer base comes 20, 30, 40 or 50 times a year . . . so we need a lot of different kinds of offerings to generate visitations," Lupo says. "A diverse entertainment program is an important part of the business plan" - as is appealing to the Shore community.

For years, Bay-Atlantic has held its pop-infused fall gala at the Borgata (this year's is titled Broadway A-Z). So in 2013, when Lupo proposed a more serious classical-repertoire pilot season - "we were looking for some new ways to generate business" - the orchestra's Gaylin was surprised. But why not? And since Bay-Atlantic is a chamber orchestra that tops out at 50 players, it fits on the 900-seat Music Box stage in a way the New York Philharmonic would not.

Also, Gaylin has a history of attracting rising guest artists, from Jackiw to Hilary Hahn, who are eager to try out major new repertoire away from the big-city spotlight.

"He's an intellectual musician, very thoughtful, with interpretations that aren't academic but emotionally vivid," says Jackiw.

Wang's date, her first with the Shostakovich, was offered in January by Opus 3 Artists. Schedule adjustments were needed, as were financial arrangements. Bay-Atlantic did extra fund-raising. "But there was bending on both sides," Gaylin said.

Since then the pianist suffered a rib injury that led her to cancel her June concerts, the chance to play the tricky, high-velocity Shostakovich with Gaylin is more felicitous than ever: Her post-Borgata outings with the concerto would make a veteran's head spin - the Hollywood Bowl with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, St. Petersburg with Yuri Temirkanov, New York's Mostly Mozart Festival with Osmo Vanska, and Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Mariss Jansons.

Eager to be well-prepared for what's ahead, Wang calls her Atlantic City gig "the best warm-up for the piece."

For the Borgata audience, it's a $25 bargain.


MUSIC

The Bay-Atlantic Symphony with Yuja Wang

5 p.m. Sunday at the Music Box theater,

Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa,

1 Borgata Way, Atlantic City

Tickets: $25

866-900-4849 or www.theborgata.com


dstearns@phillynews.com.


 

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