The history of esteemed ensembles such as the Boston Symphony Chamber Players can sometimes seem buried beneath the weight of their own augustness. But of course the Chamber Players came into the world at a particular moment in response to a particular set of needs.
The year was 1964, and BSO music director Erich Leinsdorf wanted to introduce chamber music prelude concerts at Tanglewood to give New York audiences more time to arrive before the orchestra’s Friday night performances. The BSO’s principal players, who are released from obligations to play in the Pops, were the natural choice. So was the decision to rehearse and introduce the summer concerts during the regular subscription season. The protean group’s debut performance took place in November 1964 in Sanders Theatre, with concertmaster Joseph Silverstein, principal flute Doriot Anthony Dwyer, and principal viola Burton Fine joined by colleagues in music of Beethoven and Mozart. A local institution was born.
In the intervening decades, the Chamber Players have toured and recorded extensively and traversed an impressive range of repertoire, from Schumann to Schulhoff, Weber to Webern. The group’s secret weapon is having as its backbench the entire Boston Symphony Orchestra, and therefore the ability to tap any number of players for larger works of unusual instrumentation. At the same time, the connections forged among the principal players by performing chamber music together cannot help but cycle back into the larger ensemble. Indeed, one of the highest compliments that can be paid to any orchestra is to say it has made a big symphonic score sound like chamber music.
To mark the ensemble’s 50th anniversary, the BSO has commissioned a number of new works, four of which were premiered on Sunday’s program in Jordan Hall. Bookending these premieres was music by two significant but seldom-performed New England composers from the early 20th century, Charles Loeffler’s Two Rhapsodies and Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet. This is the place to mention that the format of the Chamber Players’ series — with each program presented just once in a hall that seats around 1,000 — means it can afford to program less cautiously than its parent orchestra.
In keeping with Sunday’s local theme, all of the composers had links to Boston with varying degrees of closeness. At 88, Gunther Schuller seems to be wearing his vast experience and erudition more lightly by the year, creating one recent work literally from the fabric of his dreams and, in Sunday’s premiere, an instantly appealing work called “Games,” embracing the idea of musical play.
The piece itself is a one-movement work scored for wind quintet and strings. Some of its games are rhythmic ones, as Schuller stacks up jostling rhythms on top of each other in enjoyably teetering proportions. Many are connected to quotations, veiled and less so, of snippets from Strauss, Rossini, Ravel, and appropriately enough in the work’s final chords, Mozart’s “Musical Joke.” But at no point does the work risk falling captive to its references. In the sheer velocity of its musical ideas, in its witty diversions voiced through a challenging chromatic language, the work feels like classic Schuller.
Also among Sunday’s premieres was a brief but important new wind quintet by Yehudi Wyner. “Into the evening air” takes its title from a line in a Wallace Stevens poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” Wyner’s score is a stunner, full of a watchful, silvery beauty. This music — billowing, airy, and deceptively light — seems to perfectly reflect the quiet glow and calm wisdom of this late poem. And yet, as we know, sometimes the same clearing in a forest can be reached by many paths. Wyner actually composed his work (all but its title) before reading a word of the poem. Both score and text, in any case, are colored in subtle half-tints and both speak obliquely of ultimate things. In the score’s final pages the music’s corporeality, such as it is, seems to slowly dissolve. A final upward-leaping flute line is questing, interrogative.
Alongside the new pieces by these two distinguished veterans came resourceful works by a pair of younger composers, Kati Agócs and Hannah Lash. Agócs’s septet, “Devotion,” boasts some angular yet lyrical horn writing over churning harp lines but the work engages the ear primarily by gathering and dispersing its energy in unexpected ways. Lash’s tautly constructed trio, “Three Shades Without Angles,” borrows its instrumentation from a famous Debussy sonata (for flute, viola and harp) but takes those instruments on a very different journey. All of the afternoon’s premieres received alert and exacting performances, with BSO assistant conductor Andris Poga stepping up deftly whenever a conductor was needed. Other guest artists joining the standing ensemble included Sato Knudsen (cello), Jessica Zhou (harp), and Randall Hodgkinson (piano).