In a city flush with amateur orchestras, the New England Philharmonic has spent much of the past 44 years distinguishing itself from the crowd. The groundwork was laid in the ensemble’s first decades. Then, its exemplary reputation solidified during the 23-year tenure of Richard Pittman, who became music director in 1997 and steered the orchestra headlong into challenging contemporary music — territory that would be unthinkable for the average volunteer ensemble that rehearses once a week.
Now, as the orchestra resumes rehearsing and performing after a silent season due to COVID-19, it’s doing so without its longtime leader, who suffered a severe stroke last spring. This season, the NEP is carrying out the search for a new music director — and whoever it is should be eager to continue the orchestra’s mission both on and off the podium.
“We’re looking for someone who will help the NEP stand out and bring us into the next steps in our history,” said Daniel Fryburg, who was the orchestra’s general manager until Oct. 1, in a phone interview.
A warm stage presence and willingness to engage with the community is a must, he continued. “Sometimes contemporary music is a little less approachable, and it’s mostly because the audience doesn’t understand it. We really want to have a music director who can approach the audience, and share why the music sounds like this or what the composer was intending. So when they listen, they fully understand the music.”
When the ensemble was established in 1977 as the Mystic Valley Chamber Orchestra, it began with familiar repertoire such as Mozart and Beethoven. But even in those early years, the orchestra devoted attention to new music, setting up a call-for-scores competition and a composer in residence program — both of which still exist today. In the new millennium under Pittman, music from the last hundred years became its bread and butter. Towering works for orchestra, chorus, and soloists such as Alban Berg’s dark modernist opera “Wozzeck” and Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”; world and local premieres from the likes of Bernard Hoffer, David Rakowski, and Hannah Lash; 20th-century concertos that always seem to be on the periphery of the repertoire; Pittman guided his volunteer players through them all.
This season, the search for a successor begins. Five concerts are scheduled for the 2021-22 season. The first one, on Oct. 16, will be conducted by former NEP composer-in-residence Eric Nathan in his Boston conducting debut. (He’s not auditioning for the music director position.) Then, the orchestra runs through a gauntlet of would-be music directors, who will lead one concert each: Adam Kerry Boyles (Dec. 5), Nicholas DeMaison (Feb. 26), Tianhui Ng (May 1), and Yoichi Udagawa (June 18).
And when those candidates walk into the rehearsal room, violinist Louise Myers knows what she’ll be looking for.
“I want to have someone come in and know that expression and playing must be done with passion and commitment,” she said. “I want to have fun — this is still a volunteer group.”
Myers has been with the group since its founding, and she’s noticed that in the NEP, musicians tend to stay around for years on end — longer than in other amateur groups she’s joined. “[Dick] created an orchestra that people really, really want to play in,” said Myers, who has penned a few retrospectives of the orchestra and acts as its unofficial historian.
Pittman had several ironclad tenets for a successful rehearsal, she explained. Players were expected to be in their seats and ready to rehearse on time. Chatter between stands was discouraged, and if a cellphone went off, he was “not a happy man,” said Myers.
But his rule was never tyrannical, she was quick to say. “He could be very, very firm, but he was also very encouraging, and much inclined to be a teacher and a guide,” she said. “Over all these years, the orchestra has been my conservatory. I think I’ve learned more than some people graduating [music school] now.”
Meghan Titzer, an insurance professional who has played violin with the orchestra for 10 years, remembered being “terrified” during her first few seasons. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t even know what I got myself into, I can’t play this!’ ” she said in a phone interview.
She still feels intimidated at the beginning of a rehearsal cycle, but she also noticed how much playing the orchestra’s demanding repertoire has helped her grow as a musician, and she’s hoping that the new director can be just as clear on the podium as Pittman was.
“If he dropped a beat, it meant that something was wrong, like he was sick,” said Titzer. “I could probably count on one hand the number of times that happened in 10 years.”
When Pittman joined the NEP, he had already been at the helm of professional contemporary chamber music ensemble Boston Musica Viva for nearly three decades, having founded it in 1969. Through that ensemble, he had connections with many prominent composers, which were also an invaluable resource for the NEP. “I recall times when we would have difficulty with some music notation . . . and he would say very casually ‘Well, I’ll ask Elliott,’ or ‘I’ll check with Gunther’ — meaning [composers] Elliott Carter and Gunther Schuller. These were his friends,” Myers said.
“We would end up with composers doing stuff for us regularly that they probably would not do for any other ensemble that wasn’t professional,” said Titzer. “And a lot of them showed up because of Dick.”
In 2019, Pittman celebrated a half century with Boston Musica Viva, and he seemed to have no inclination toward slowing down or stepping back from any of his obligations, which also included leading the Concord Orchestra. But in the second week of March 2020, as the threat of the pandemic sent the arts world into hibernation, Pittman suffered a severe stroke. He had been on the podium leading Boston Musica Viva’s annual family concert just a few days earlier. The conductor is currently receiving therapy and working on recovery, according to Boston Musica Viva executive director Robert Pape, and the NEP hopes that he will be able to participate in some capacity as music director emeritus.
NEW ENGLAND PHILHARMONIC
Oct. 16, 8 p.m. All Saints Parish, Brookline. 855-463-7445, www.nephilharmonic.org