CAMBRIDGE — The writer Annie Dillard, if memory serves, once wondered how many years it took primitive man to actually believe in the cycle of the seasons, to be absolutely sure that the spring would arrive after the seemingly endless winter. At some point this belief must have required a leap of faith. And perhaps on some deep evolutionary level, we must still convince ourselves each year anew.
That at least would help explain something of the durability of vernal tropes across centuries of poetry and music. It also would have made it a safe bet that the New England Philharmonic’s “Spring Awakening” program — no doubt planned back when streets were wide and ice dams were far from anyone’s mind — would find resonance. Even more, as it turned out, than music director Richard Pittman could have imagined.
As snow returned to the skies on Sunday afternoon, Pittman brought his ensemble, a volunteer orchestra known for its uncommonly thoughtful and adventurous programming, to the stage of Kresge Auditorium, where a large crowd gathered to be warmed by at least the idea of spring. Britten’s rarely spotted “Spring Symphony” was the concert’s centerpiece, offset by Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Opening the afternoon was John Harbison’s “Darkbloom” Overture.
Britten’s choral symphony offers settings of the composer’s own compendium of English lyric poetry on spring themes, grouped into four distinct musical sections. Poets range from John Milton to W.H. Auden. The opening begins in winter, with the chorus’s pleading, prayerful words: “Shine out, fair sun, with all your heat.” At the end, a children’s chorus chants the famous “Soomer is i-coomen in.”
And while Britten made clear at the time of the work’s premiere that he was seeking to depict something very different from the primitive rites of the Russian spring, his settings nonetheless avoid any clichéd pastoralism. Passing dissonances, in Parts I and II in particular, hint at darker sides of the seasons, and Britten’s kaleidoscopic use of the orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists keeps the ear constantly engaged.
Sunday’s performance united the Philharmonic with the singers of Chorus pro Musica and the Boston Children’s Chorus, and the capable vocal soloists Sarah Pelletier, Krista River, and Ray Bauwens. Under Pittman’s direction, the results were vibrant and involving, with notably clear diction from the choruses. The orchestral playing, in the Britten as well as in the Copland, was characterful and committed, with the enthusiasm and sincerity on stage clearly transferring across the footlights to a responsive crowd.
Opening the program with Harbison’s “Darkbloom” made for a strong contrast. The opera (based on “Lolita”) for which this music was first conceived never came to fruition, but the vividness of the musical ideas in this brief score allow it to easily stand on its own.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.