The New England Philharmonic, an intrepid volunteer orchestra, celebrated its 40th anniversary on Saturday at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center. An official recognition from Boston chief of arts and culture Julie Burros preceded the musically fascinating, emotionally wrenching performance. Directed by Richard Pittman for the past two decades, the orchestra centers on 20th-century and contemporary works rarely heard in Boston. A program built around British composer Michael Tippett’s 1941 secular oratorio “A Child of Our Time” invited us to gaze with threefold vision at our past, present, and future, celebrating connections and staring down the shadows of the soul.
Composer Richard Cornell introduced his world premiere, “Melospiza melodia: Fanfare for Orchestra,” briefly describing the New England birdsong from which he took inspiration. Bright flutters of brass and bursts of winds and xylophone rose out of a marshy mist of harp and strings, evoking an avian dawn chorus.
Mercurial solo melodies streaked color across the sustained background texture of Gunther Schuller’s “Vertige d’Eros”; concertmaster Danielle Maddon’s lean violin lines and Michael Horowitz’s curious flute arcs captivated. Though the sound lost some clarity and fullness in the higher range, the whole ensemble’s unity and dedication was astounding. Schuller is not easy by any stretch, and the Philharmonic’s amateur players conveyed his musical language with aplomb.
“A Child of Our Time” was written in response to Kristallnacht and other terror occurring in the late 1930s, but the text considers and confronts the nature of oppression, exile, and violence in timeless terms. Pittman thought it was so important that the audience see every word that he asked if the house lights were bright enough before the starting the piece.
“Now in each nation there were some cast out by authority . . . made to suffer for the gen’ral wrong,” the Narrator sings near the beginning. “We cannot have them in our Empire. . . . Let them starve in No-Man’s Land!” a chorus later declares. Desperate, an oppressed man (“The Boy”) shoots an official, and using him as a scapegoat, the people attack his entire group. The parallels to today’s refugee crisis could not have been missed even if the program notes had not pointed them out.
Chorus Pro Musica, another high-quality amateur group, sailed through both the complex chromaticism of the narrative choruses and the heartfelt but unsentimental arrangements of spirituals that punctuate critical moments in the story. The fragmented fury of the Terror movement coalesced into a harrowing rendition of the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” with the marvelous bass Sumner Thompson singing the verses. Mezzo Krista River’s intent luminosity lent her solo lines a feeling of omniscience. Tenor Charles Blandy’s voice was often drowned in the orchestra’s sound despite its tuneful and urgent ring, and soprano Sarah Pelletier’s solos were tender but somewhat thin.
The final spiritual, “Deep River,” opened the door to a glimpse of something larger than one place or time, sweeping the audience along in melodies that overlapped, overwhelmed, and strived toward the light. It seemed it was about to end in a relaxed major key, but instead turned back toward the darkness under which it had passed, finishing not in relieved optimism but complex remembrance.
NEW ENGLAND PHILHARMONIC
At Tsai Performance Center, Saturday. www.nephilharmonic.org 855-463-7445Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.
An earlier version included a photo caption with incorrect date information.