On its worst days, the New England Philharmonic sounds like an above-average amateur orchestra, which is exactly what it is. On its best days, it rivals several professional groups in technical prowess, surpassing those same groups by a mile in spice and enthusiasm. All this is to say that when the Boston Symphony Orchestra plays Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra next January, it shouldn’t be too difficult for the “Big Five” orchestra to lay down a cleaner take than Saturday evening’s rendition by the all-volunteer ensemble that rehearses once a week. But when it comes to connecting with the music and performing with spirit, the New England Philharmonic sets a high standard. Good luck, BSO.
The Philharmonic has had an eventful season of auditions, with four music director candidates taking trial runs with the orchestra in hopes of being the successor to music director emeritus Richard Pittman, who suffered a severe stroke in 2020. Yoichi Udagawa, the fourth and final candidate, is already a conductor about town. He holds music director positions with the professional Cape Ann Symphony along with the volunteer Melrose Symphony Orchestra and Quincy Symphony Orchestra. With these three ensembles, Udagawa typically leads standard orchestral fare, from Mozart to the early 20th-century with a pops concert here and there. Though Saturday’s program was a change of pace — including the local premiere of three pieces, the world premiere of one, and the devilish orchestral showcase that is the Lutoslawski Concerto — he hit the right notes with the musicians and the audience.
For the musicians of the Philharmonic, the repertoire was challenging even by the high standards set by Pittman, but they had prepared themselves with aplomb. A vibrant fanfare in honor of Pittman composed by Kathryn Salfelder started the evening off; this was followed by the lush but spiky “ploy, pivot” by Igor Santos, which took a dreamlike carousel ride around strongly contrasting but complementary motifs. Before the piece itself, Udagawa called on various musicians to present those key phrases to demonstrate how they fit together. “Isn’t that amazing?” he asked, encouraging applause from the small audience as his smile illuminated his whole face, mask and all. (If I had to choose one of this season’s four candidates to explain a new piece to me, my first pick would be Tianhui Ng, who appeared in May; Udagawa’s vivacity lands him as a strong second.)
TJ Cole’s “Nightscape” — followed by Nathan’s Double Concerto for Solo Violin, Solo Clarinet, and Strings — made me wish I could rewind time and hear them again. “Nightscape” glowed gently in evocation of the awe of taking in a star-filled sky, with judiciously deployed dissonances representing the composer’s feeling of smallness in the face of the infinite. (If anyone’s planning Holst’s “The Planets” for a future season, this would make a perfect prologue.)
Nathan’s concerto then flipped the balance, with violinist Stefan Jackiw and the orchestral strings lingering in an icy and brittle soundscape that was only disrupted by the entrance of clarinetist Yoonah Kim six minutes in. Her first sustained note rose in seamless parallel with Jackiw as his volume receded and hers bloomed. As she introduced increasingly kinetic phrases to the mix, Jackiw and the orchestra followed suit; a rapid-fire interchange between soloists eventually led to a colossal C major chord, which gradually compressed into a soft but solid single note. It may not have been what the composer intended, but I’ve never heard a more accurate musical illustration of someone pulling a person they love out of the doldrums.
NEW ENGLAND PHILHARMONIC
At Jordan Hall, June 18. www.nephilharmonic.org