Is there a doctor in the house? At every performance I have attended by the Longwood Symphony, someone in the audience or on stage, makes a version of the same quip. Well, as it turns out, yes.
The Longwood Symphony Orchestra is made up of members of Boston’s health care community, including nurses, doctors, researchers, and medical students. Founded in 1982, it’s earned a distinguished place among the area’s rich network of community orchestras thanks to its unusual makeup, its adventurous programming, and its engaged social mission. In addition to its series of public performances in Jordan Hall, each a benefit for a local health-related nonprofit, its members also bring chamber music to hospitals and rehab centers. What’s more, the group has been at the center of an expanding public and scientific conversation about music and healing, as explored through numerous symposia and as chronicled in the book “Scales to Scalpels,” by Longwood violinist and former president Dr. Lisa Wong.
Two-thirds of Saturday’s program in Jordan Hall consisted of works by living composers, a fact that also emphasized the group’s laudable commitment to helping its audiences deepen their connection to contemporary music. The night opened with John Harbison’s “Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra),” an early overture-like incarnation of what would eventually become the composer’s grand opera “The Great Gatsby,” written as a Met commission and premiered at that house in 1999. At its center is a Jazz Age pop tune conceived by Harbison and masterfully retrofitted in period garb, insouciantly dapper with an easy swing. Around that tune, however, Harbison foreshadows the tragedy we know the opera has in store with dark, intensely brooding orchestral writing. Next up was Joan Tower’s “Duets,” an intricate concerto for orchestra built out of soloistic duos played in pairs by various members of the orchestra. The piece is just one of two works by Tower that Longwood will be offering this season.
On Saturday, both of these challenging contemporary pieces, while seemingly pressing the all-volunteer orchestra to the edge of its capacity, also brought out its best, as music director Ronald Feldman, at key moments, drew out expressively rich and deeply committed playing. Tower’s “Duets,” with its emphasis on pairings, also handily set up the evening’s anchor work, Brahms’s mighty Double Concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra.
Longwood has a tradition of recruiting prominent musicians from the Boston area to serve as soloists and on Saturday night, the spotlight was shared by violinist Ayano Ninomiya, a Naumburg Competition winner and NEC faculty member, and cellist Blaise Déjardin, the BSO member appointed last year as the orchestra’s principal cello. First-movement tempo were spacious, and both soloists played with poise and mastery, Déjardin bringing unflappable elegance and a songful quality to a part more typically approached with volcanic intensity, and Ninomiya, at a slightly higher temperature, cutting through the orchestra with rhythmically emphatic, well-chiseled solo lines. This was not a night for a critic to nitpick details about the orchestra’s performance; all participants seemed buoyed by the music as smiles flashed widely afterward, on stage and off, and the audience rose swiftly to its feet. It’s hard to imagine another city with a medical community as musically vibrant and as committed to exploring, in words and in deed, the myriad connections between music and healing. The group’s next Jordan Hall program will be on March 7, with works by Corigliano, Tower, Gershwin, and Ellington.
LONGWOOD SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Ronald Feldman, music director.
At: Jordan Hall, Saturday night