Perhaps we’ve taken the New England Philharmonic for granted. Coming up on four decades after its founding as the Mystic Valley Chamber Orchestra, it has established a reputation for smart programming that interleaves new music with 20th-century works that have largely gone unplayed in Boston. The recipient of nine ASCAP awards for adventurous programming, the Philharmonic is perhaps the only amateur orchestra to support a composer in residence and call for scores. Programs that include more than one world premiere, such as Saturday’s, are not uncommon.
And yet there is a sense that the orchestra doesn’t have the public profile its artistic efforts merit. So it is calling this season, its 38th, a “reintroduction” to Boston audiences. “There’s a desire and a feeling among everyone that what the orchestra does and the quality of the performances that we can bring off deserve a little more recognition and a wider audience,” said its music director, Richard Pittman, in a recent interview. “We really just want to give this music and these composers a wider hearing.”
The exploratory aspect of the Philharmonic’s programming has been part of the orchestra’s makeup through the tenure of its last three music directors: Ronald Feldman, Jeffrey Rink, and Pittman, who has led the orchestra since 1997. His tastes are “fairly catholic,” though his emphasis is on new works, “but in the context of older music as well. So that you see more the connection of what’s going on and what’s gone on in the recent past.”
Saturday’s program is typical of his approach. It begins with a modernist classic, Ligeti’s “Ramifications” for strings, followed by the first performance of “Ligeti Split,” a jazz-saturated work by Bernard Hoffer, whose oeuvre divides between concert music and commercial and film works. A dance theme runs through the remaining works: Ravel’s “La Valse,” Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, and the premiere of “Dance Episodes,” the Fifth Symphony by composer in residence David Rakowski.
“They play very professionally, way beyond your typical amateur orchestra,” said Rakowski, who teaches at Brandeis University and is in the fourth season of his Philharmonic residency. “They love playing the music they’ve been playing, and Dick shows them his enthusiasm about the music, and it seems to reflect on their playing.”
Rakowski related a story another Boston composer, John Harbison, told him when the orchestra played Harbison’s cello concerto last season. “First thing John said [to them] was, ‘There aren’t that many orchestras that practice their parts. And obviously you guys do.’ From then on, he was able to talk about the music of the piece, rather than talk about where the bass was off by a beat or where someone was too loud or something.”
Harbison is on this season as well — “Darkbloom: Overture for an Imagined Opera” (March 1) which the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned. Also on that program is Britten’s “Spring Symphony,” which the BSO also commissioned but has played only eight times, and not since 1999. The programming fills in other cracks as well: Pittman has a penchant for neglected midcentury American composers such as Roy Harris and Wallingford Riegger. And the Philharmonic has played several works by perhaps Boston’s most eminent living composer: Gunther Schuller, who is the orchestra’s composer laureate.
Though it’s true that the orchestra’s ambitions have occasionally overstepped its capabilities, Pittman thinks he’s helped the orchestra advance technically. “I don’t want this to sound vain, but any orchestra I work with, if I can’t have it continually improve, I’m not doing a good job.” And while he allows that the level of playing varies through the orchestra, “I find that mostly people rise to the occasion. Everyone is serious, everyone works hard. And it keeps getting better.”
Asked about memorable concerts from his tenure, Pittman mentions first of all Britten’s “War Requiem,” which the orchestra played in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in 2012. There was also a rare concert performance of Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” in 2007 to mark the orchestra’s 30th anniversary. And Hoffer’s Violin Concerto, composed for the Philharmonic’s concertmaster, Danielle Maddon. And Michael Gandolfi’s “Chesapeake: Summer of 1814,” a piece about the writing of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
But, Pittman added, “I don’t think in the past too much. I tend to look ahead.”David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail