Growing up in Singapore, conductor Tianhui Ng never had to be convinced to love classical music, and he thought everyone would feel the same way if they only listened. “I had read all the classical music propaganda — music is a universal language,” he explained.
Then, when he was around 12 he played a recording of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” overture for his grandmother, who was a devoted fan of Teochew opera — one of the many regional flavors of Chinese opera. He expected her to be just as swept away as he’d been.
Instead, her reaction was simply “it got louder,” reminisced Ng, 43. “Not inaccurate!”
It was then Ng learned he could never assume listeners would approach music from a common understanding. So along with piano, trombone, singing, and conducting, he began to hone and cultivate skills in communicating about music, as well as through it: telling the stories behind the music, and conveying its cultural and historical contexts. “I felt like there was this real need for translation, and for also imparting the reasons why I was so inspired,” he said.
Now, with a few decades of experience, Ng has found that telling what he calls “human stories” helps both musicians and audiences connect with unfamiliar music. And as the new (as of this past summer) music director of the New England Philharmonic — the 45-year-old volunteer orchestra that focuses on 20th- and 21st-century repertoire — he has even more opportunities to tell those stories in Boston.
The ensemble presents its next concert, “Poetic Dances,” on Feb. 18.
The NEP, which rehearses weekly and typically performs around four concerts a year, is one more addition to Ng’s already busy dance card. In the Pioneer Valley, his home for the past 13 years, the conductor’s engagements include the Pioneer Valley Symphony, the Mount Holyoke Symphony Orchestra at Mount Holyoke College (where he teaches), and the Holyoke-based Victory Players. In the Boston area, his resume includes Boston Opera Collaborative, Juventas New Music, White Snake Projects, and MassOpera.
In a Zoom interview from Puerto Rico, where he was working on a project with the Victory Players, Ng revealed that a few musicians he’d met in Boston encouraged him to audition for the NEP job, because they felt the orchestra seemed to “align with [his] personal aims and goals,” he recalled.
When the NEP performed Chen Yi’s “Spring in Dresden” in May, Ng introduced listeners to the Beijing opera vocal tradition that inspired the composer’s string writing. ”Whatever the audience heard me explain, the orchestra got eight times as much,” Ng said. During the rehearsal process, they explored the “calligraphic roots” of Yi’s melodies and read translations of the Tang Dynasty poem that inspired the piece. “We were able to really get into the music, and that’s something that is very important to me.“
Ng was chosen for the job this past July, from four finalists. He didn’t have sufficient time to select the entire season’s repertoire, and there were already several pieces slotted for the season. So Ng planned “Remembered Futures,” the season opener in October; and “People in Between,” the final concert of the season (May 7), which includes music by Uzbekistan-born Tatar composer Adeliia Faizullina and Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann alongside an NEP co-commission from composer-in-residence Eric Nathan and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7.
Just a few months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ng traveled to conduct recording sessions and concerts of de Hartmann’s music with the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine as part of a long-running project to revive de Hartmann’s music. Work continued on the resulting album amid Russian attacks. “They were sending us files from the subways in Kyiv while the bombs were going off above them,” said Ng, who planned the program while anticipating this spring might be a painful moment “where more than a year after the start of the conflict, the media could be tired of talking about it, and yet the human suffering continues.”
The season’s remaining two concerts, including next month’s “Poetic Dances,” were mostly programmed by Nathan with some input from Ng. The two found themselves on the same wavelength while working together on planning, Nathan said in a phone interview. “A lot of the composers I was interested in were the ones he was interested in as well,” he said.
Because Medfield-raised composer Matthew Aucoin (son of Globe theater critic Don Aucoin) had already been commissioned by the NEP, Nathan used the score of Aucoin’s “Family Dinner” — on which half of the NEP-commissioned “Two Dances” is based — as a launchpad to craft the “Poetic Dances” program, which also includes music by Kareem Roustom, Rachmaninoff, 2022 NEP Call for Scores winner Elijah Daniel Smith, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, whose fanfare honoring music director emeritus Richard Pittman is receiving its world premiere at the beginning of the program.
“Two Dances” adapts two movements from separate chamber pieces (“The No One’s Rose” and “Family Dinner”) for a full orchestra and two solo violins; the Feb. 18 concert features NEP concertmaster Danielle Maddon and Keir GoGwilt, a frequent Aucoin collaborator since their days together at Harvard University. Ever since “Family Dinner” premiered at the 2022 Ojai Music Festival, said Aucoin, that movement “really wanted to be for full orchestra,” and being able to play with a bigger sonic palette was rewarding and fun.
“You’re always hearing other possible voicings and colors that you could find a way to include, and it’s not always possible with a smaller ensemble, so this just felt like coloring in the rainbow,” Aucoin said in a phone interview.
Aucoin will be in attendance for the “Two Dances” premiere, but only the second half of the concert: His “Eurydice” suite is being premiered on the same night at Sanders Theatre by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, and he’s planning to rush over during intermission. “[Ng] is as new to me as he is to the orchestra, but everyone seems really enthusiastic,” said Aucoin.
Ng noted that when he rehearsed the orchestra during his audition in May, he sensed “amazing enthusiasm” for new music, in contrast with other experiences where he felt like he needed to convince players to get on board with playing modern pieces. “In this case, the players are already exponents of the work. So we can immediately get past that and go a whole lot deeper,” he said. “We are in this world where there are so many different languages of composition, and the expressions and how these ideas are translated is very individual to each composer.”
NEW ENGLAND PHILHARMONIC
At Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory. Feb. 18. www.nephilharmonic.org
Due to a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story misstated the locations of concerts by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and the New England Philharmonic on Feb. 18. The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra is at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University, and the New England Philharmonic is at Jordan Hall. The Globe regrets the error.